For many colleges, May 1 is the deadline by which admitted applicants must either accept or decline offers of admissions -- sending in a deposit (theoretically to only one institution) to save a spot.
Many colleges this year report a surge of students deciding at the last minute and mailing their replies on May 1, meaning that the counting of deposits continued well into last week. The first news reports on students' decisions -- as is the case with much commentary on college admissions -- have focused on the most elite colleges, which also happen to provide generous financial aid packages, these days reaching well into the middle class. So it's no surprise to most who follow admissions that places like Harvard and Yale Universities  are reporting nearly identical "yields" -- the percentage of accepted applicants who enroll -- to last year.
But as admissions experts have been saying for years to anyone who will listen, Harvard, Yale, and about another 25 or so universities and liberal arts colleges essentially operate in their own world when it comes to admissions, and these aren't the institutions the overwhelming majority of students attend. This year, the real action may be in public higher education and among the private institutions that don't have billion-dollar endowments or international name recognition.
Admissions officials have been expecting major increases in public college and university applications, selectivity and enrollments (the latter of course only at those institutions with space to expand). Much of that appears to be happening as expected. Many publics reported significant application increases and are now expecting full dormitories in the fall, in part, they believe, from students whose more budget-conscious families wanted to look at institutions with lower sticker prices than those at the privates. Many publics are seeing surges in transfer applications, too, in some cases from those seeking to move from more expensive institutions.
Projections about private colleges have been all over the map, with some fearing that many institutions would lack for students this fall. Some privates, however, including many out of the Ivy stratosphere, are reporting similar numbers of deposits to last year, or modest declines.
But in most cases of those willing to talk so far (and some colleges rumored to be having off years have made clear that calls from reporters are not going to be returned), common themes are that it took much more money and more creativity to fill classes this year than in the past. Merit and need-based aid were up at many institutions. Discount rates -- the percentage off published costs that students actually pay -- are also up. In many cases, college officials say that they let spending and discount rates rise this year, and that the real challenge will be next year, because they won't be able to afford similar increases.
In figuring out the meaning of patterns, many admissions officers said that this is a year to be cautious about averages or statistics that normally are good indicators. Yield is normally a good indicator of a college's admissions status and health, but many publics this year received applications from and admitted more students of higher quality than standard years. Those applicants have more options, so the yield rate on those applicants is going to be lower.
In the private sector, some colleges saw signs of more applications from prospective students who appeared to be applying to more colleges than would have been the case previously. So these colleges admitted more students, expecting lower yields. Other colleges gave generous aid packages to some students, effectively buying higher yield.
There are so many changes in colleges' strategies and finances -- and applicants' finances and confidence in the economy -- from this year to last that any national averages on yield may be superficial, and even comparing groups of colleges from last year to this year risks comparing not just apples and oranges but asparagus, too -- there are just too many changes in play.
For the many publics that are not residential and that serve older, nontraditional students, May 1 is not as key a date as it is for residential colleges that primarily admit 18 year olds. Admissions and enrollment decisions will continue up until the start of the fall semester at many institutions, especially at community colleges.
And enrollments at these institutions, which have been going up for more than a year now,  are expected to continue to rise. For these and other publics, the struggle of this admissions season is less about attracting students than about securing funds to offer the class sections, academic advising and other services students need.
Public universities that have never lacked for applicants -- in state or out of state -- saw additional increases this year. The University of Michigan and the University of Vermont both reported increases of 6 percent, with applicant quality up. The University of Vermont as a result expected a slight dip in yield.
Public institutions that are smaller, and aim to attract students who might otherwise look at private institutions, are also reporting strong years. Truman State University saw a 9 percent increase in applications and is running ahead of deposits on next year. St. Mary's College of Maryland (which despite what the name might suggest is a public, liberal arts institution) has seen application totals stay the same, but with more applications coming from those who said that they might otherwise have left the state. Visits to the St. Mary's campus in April were way up over those of a year ago, leading officials to think they may see more gains next year.
New York State -- home to many fine public and private institutions, but not the population boom evident in the South and West -- provides evidence for some of the increased demand in the public sector.
While some of the City University of New York numbers aren't final, system officials have already found that freshman applications were up 12 percent, transfer applications were up 30 percent, and records were set systemwide for applications from students with SAT scores over 1200, from New York City's specialized high schools (institutions like Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School). At CUNY's new honors college, applications for early decision hit 360, up from 241 a year ago.
Or consider the State University of New York's Binghamton campus, which has long been highly competitive in undergraduate admissions. This year, it was tougher than ever to get into Binghamton, but yield will be down just a bit -- while the number of offers and enrollment slots are stable.
Freshman applications were up 9 percent, to 29,000. Transfer applications were up 25 percent, to 4,700. To bring in a frosh class of 2,000, the university found itself admitting 32 percent of applications, down from last year's 38 percent. But because the additional applicants included many students with many options, yield appears to be about 24 percent, down from 26 percent. Yet university officials anticipate the class coming in right on target.
In private higher education outside the billion-dollar endowment club, this appears to be a year in which admissions offices were given more money to recruit -- and many are spending it, with some notable successes. For many of these institutions, especially residential institutions that serve traditional age students, May 1 was a key date to determine success.
Take Creighton University. It's a private institution with the kind of characteristics that could have made this a tough year. Among its fellow Jesuit colleges, it doesn't have the name recognition of a Boston College or Georgetown University. Creighton is located in Omaha, a perfectly nice city, but not the kind of place millions of teenagers dream of as a college destination. And it is a private institution in a region where relatively inexpensive publics abound.
As of Friday, Creighton has 1,060 deposits for the fall freshman class, an all-time record, and up from 975 a year ago. Creighton reached its target through focus and spending. Don Bishop, associate vice president for enrollment management, said for example that a few years ago he noticed an unusual number of law school and medical school alumni from Hawaii.
He reached out to them, contacted schools in Hawaii, and in the last five years, the university has seen its undergraduate enrollments from Hawaii double, to about 60 per class. Given that most Hawaiian students who come to the mainland for higher education opt for the West coast, that's notable, and the kind of niche Bishop said is important for colleges to have when years like this one appear.
Hawaii, of course, will not solve enrollment dilemmas for most private colleges. But many think that merit aid will. At Creighton, the university maintained its awards for low-income students, but paid particular attention to the middle class. The average award (need and merit combined) for families with incomes in the $100,000-$200,000 was up by $3,000 this year.
Largely as a result of that move, and some families' reluctance to pay top dollar without some merit aid, Creighton has a doubling this year -- to 66 from 33 -- of deposits from students in the top 1 percent on ACT scores. "These are people who can get into top 20 schools, but they don't give merit, and we gave merit to them of $10,000 to $15,000," Bishop said. This year, that's getting more admitted applicants to say Yes.
For the new class of students, that means Creighton is spending about $1.5 million more on aid this year. Bishop said that he believes that had the university not responded in this way (as well as with additional funds for continuing students whose families' finances took a hit due to the economy), Creighton could have seen an enrollment drop. The net revenue the students will be bringing should offset the spending, he said. "We protected more than we would have lost, but we had to spend more to protect what we had," he said.
Indeed, many other colleges report spending and doing more just to hold even, or to minimize a decline that might have been steep this year without extra effort and resources.
Augustana College, in Illinois, is a liberal arts institution that has spent a year coming up with creative ways to make an enrollment decision easier, but will end up in a group officials expect to see for many similar institutions -- down 5 to 10 percent in the first-year class.
Deposits currently have Augustana down about 30 students -- a figure that could rise or fall depending on what happens with other institutions' waiting lists. It announced its tuition plans  for 2009-10 about two months earlier than normal to help families plan. It attracted and admitted more applicants than ever before. It offered a special "early filers" grant for those who submitted aid applications early, so that more people would see the aid available. It offered more generous aid packages than before and revised more aid packages than before.
In the end, the average institutional grant went up to $14,342 from $14,101 a year before.
But even with all of those changes, deposits are down, in part because yield is down -- to 23 percent (as of Friday) from 27.5 percent a year prior.
W. Kent Barnds, vice president of enrollment, noted that the "break-up letters" the college has received from students declining suggest that the prospective students are being lost either to public institutions or to privates where total costs are less for those families.
"Money talked much louder this year than in previous years, at least within our pool," Barnds said.
While Barnds said he is glad that the college found resources to do more, and that he thinks those additions made a difference, he said it is important for colleges to balance that spending against their overall budgets and the relative costs of being down a few dozen students. It's not the case, he said, that spending more to attract more students is sustainable -- even if that would have made a college look good this year.
"I think one of the questions we will all have in the coming weeks is what was the real cost of meeting enrollment and what was the cost of missing enrollment, and what will the long-term consequences of both situations be?" he said. "For me, I am disappointed we are short, but I'd take our position over being short and overspending any day."
Robert J. Massa, vice president of enrollment and college relations at Dickinson College, called this the "show me the money" year in college admissions. But he also cautioned that simply providing more merit aid won't produce a class.
Dickinson offered merit award to 17.5 percent of those accepted this year, compared to 14.1 percent last year. But the yield on those students -- always low as they are those sought by other institutions, too -- was down, 7.1 percent compared to 8.5 percent last year. "Offering more and yielding less is an interesting commentary on the times," he said. In another sign of the times, Dickinson responded positively to far more financial aid appeals this year than last year (88 percent vs. 63 percent), but deposits are down a bit.
The college has 602 deposits for a class of 600. That's down 5 percent from a year ago, and below Massa's goal of 650 -- needed to deal with "summer melt" when students who get admitted off other colleges' waiting lists are lost. Dickinson will end up right on target, Massa said, as it has started admitting some students from its waiting list, and is getting favorable responses (and they aren't counted in the 602).
The key, Massa said, has been to spend more but "not open up the cash register." He predicted that colleges that were even more generous on aid may end up with more deposits this year, but that he still favors "a more prudent, long term approach," even minus a few students.
Ursinus College is another institution that is spending more -- and seeing its discount rate going up this year. Richard DiFeliciantonio, vice president for enrollment, said that the college ended up with more students than it had room for in last year's entering class (540) and so was aiming for the high 400s this year and already has 500.
"There's no doubt that beefing up financial aid made all the difference this year," he said. The average student on aid (which is more than 90 percent of students) will receive about $22,000 from Ursinus, compared to $19,500 a year ago. "It's going to cost us more, but we prepared for that," he said. The discount rate will move, when all the numbers are in, from a percentage in the low 40s to the mid 40s. That's an increase that makes sense for a year, he said, but probably not indefinitely.
Over the last six years or so, he said, revenues per student have gone up every year. This year, they will be level.
As at many colleges, the tension in admissions at Ursinus was up this year. DiFeliciantonio noted late last week that about half of all deposits had arrived in the last five days, with many families waiting right up until May 1 to make a decision. Ursinus does an early orientation -- in June -- and DiFeliciantonio said that is an effective way to prevent a dropoff among students who have committed to enroll. "That goes a long way to cementing the relationship with the college," he said.
Looking to the Future
Still other institutions are very much looking ahead -- and viewing the uncertainty this year as a good opportunity to reposition themselves in their markets.
Eastern Nazarene College -- located in Quincy, Mass. -- isn't as focused as many colleges on May 1. Deposits are currently on track to hit 192 for the freshman class, up about 20 from last year's class. But Timothy Wooster, vice president for enrollment, said that the college is more aware than ever of projected declines in high school graduates in the region, and so is working to diversify its enrollment strategies.
Currently, about one third of the college's 1,200 students are older students, many of them part of bachelor's programs the college offers at nearby community colleges. Now the college is planning to work with those community colleges to encourage more of their associate degree students to transfer into the college's residential program when they finish their associate degrees. Currently, such transfers account for about 8 percent of the residential enrollment, and Wooster would like to see that grow to 13-15 percent as more articulation agreements are reached, in fields such as nursing and engineering.
"We're trying to look at our mission in new ways," Wooster said. While Eastern Nazarene is "committed to our mission as a Christian college," the institution believes many of its academic programs have broader appeal, provided there is outreach to prospective students who might normally enroll.
Beyond outreach, there is also money. Because transfer enrollments are part of its strategy, Eastern Nazarene is significantly upping need-based grants to transfer students. That has contributed to a shift up in the discount rate from 24 percent to 33 percent. One reason the college can afford that, Wooster said, is that it is among the institutions that never had a large endowment.
A key source of aid is money that comes from Nazarene churches in New England -- the equivalent, Wooster said, of having an endowment of about $40 million. While colleges with large endowments must make do with less, Wooster said that church giving to Eastern Nazarene has remained steady, so the college has ended up able to invest in new recruitment strategies.
Looking to the near-term future is very much on the minds of many admissions officials right now, even those who have met their targets for now. Hamilton College, a competitive institution that in 2007 made a shift away from making merit grants  to focus available fund on need-based assistance, ended up late last week with 476 deposits, a bit ahead of the target class size of 465.
Monica C. Inzer, dean of admission and financial aid, said that "if we could call it a class and open tomorrow, I'd be celebrating." But with so many colleges talking about going to waiting lists, Hamilton just admitted another 10 from its waiting list to make up for anyone the college loses.
Like Inzer, many admissions deans said that this admissions cycle won't really be over until after waiting list activity or until students actually show up. Of course there are a few colleges whose missions and practices (in place long before the current economic mess) may have resonated with potential students especially well this year.
Warren Wilson College offers a liberal arts education, but every student must be a member of a work crew that logs 15 hours of work a week helping to run the college. Students in turn see a $3,500 discount off tuition, making the college less expensive than many other liberal arts colleges. The college also has long had a sustainability emphasis that currently qualifies as hot in the admissions world these days.
The college had hoped for 403 deposits, lowered the target to 367 based on various projections, and then was stunned when it ended up with 422 deposits. The college is so worried about having too many students that it's trying to encourage some accepted applicants  to participate in an Outward Bound program or to take a $2,000 scholarship to defer enrollment until January.
In a memo to the campus, Richard Blomgren, dean of admission, described the unusual situation in which Warren Wilson finds itself -- namely that applicants did exactly what it wanted. "Never before have students done what we asked -- this group applied early decision on time, they applied regular decision on time, and they applied for scholarships on time. Now, they have deposited on time. We received ONE deposit since May 1st and NOT ONE phone call asking for an extension - unheard of! We received 40 deposits between May 1st and May 7th last year," he wrote. "Go figure."
Kate Maternowski contributed to this article.