The start of May once meant that colleges knew the make-up of the class that would enter in the fall. The calendar still applies to the most elite private institutions -- and many public institutions have known for months that they are going to be full up in the fall, such that they are now debating whether they can turn students away, not knocking on doors to attract freshmen.
But there is another group -- private colleges without billion-dollar endowments or 40,000 applicants -- for whom the start of May is a shift to a new stage of filling out the fall class. These institutions had hoped to have a full class by now, and many of them are still waiting for a few more acceptances to arrive, noting that Wednesday's mail still featured postmarks from the end of April. And these institutions are not only trying to persuade those they have admitted to enroll, but are actively seeking new applicants now -- for this coming fall.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling on Wednesday released its annual May list  of colleges with space available for the fall. This year's tally features 279 four-year colleges, up from 240 last year, but by no means a record. NACAC officials stress that the list is not a scientific comparison of enrollment capacity from year to year, since some colleges that need students may not sign up for it. But at the very least, the survey shows that there is a lot of room available for those who want to go to college, with many of the slots at private colleges.
The data show, as has been the case in past years, "a fair amount of space available, even this late in the process, which is a sign of overall capacity," said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at NACAC. "I think the list seems to confirm that college admissions is continually and perpetually uncertain," he said.
For admissions officials at many private colleges, he said, "they are going to have to work much later into the spring and summer months" to fill their classes.
Colleges report a range of strategies this year in admissions and enrollment -- with much of the focus on families' worries about spending too much and colleges' worries about forgoing too much tuition revenue through high discount rates (the average percentage off the sticker price).
The boldest strategic shift this year may have been by the University of the South, which in February announced that it was cutting all student charges for the next year  (tuition, fees and room and board) by 10 percent. At the same time, Sewanee announced that it planned to end the bidding wars for top students who, while not necessarily needy, were asking the university to match offers from other institutions. Notably, the announcement came in February -- too late to influence applications, although the shift was expected to have a major impact on whether accepted applicants enrolled.
The results so far suggest that Sewanee's strategy paid off. Last year at this time, Sewanee had 397 deposits. This year it has 424. With the university hoping to enroll a class of 425, it may admit a few off the waiting list to offset any "melt" during the summer. The academic quality of the class appears to be similar to last year's. And the yield (the percentage of admitted applicants who sent in a deposit) is up by half a percentage point, to 23.5 percent.
But the real accomplishment may be that Sewanee attracted more students while following through on its plan to cut back on non-need-based aid. The college's discount rate dropped to 38.8 percent from 46 percent for first-year students -- the sort of drop many college presidents and trustees dream about, even as more institutions edge above 50 percent.
"We did not budge" when families came and asked for more aid only because some other college had offered more money, said Lee Ann Afton, dean of admission and financial aid. While many aid experts say that private colleges outside the Ivies must be "flexible" on aid awards to get top students, and that these students' families expect to bargain, Afton said that the Sewanee experience suggests other approaches may work.
By lowering tuition, she noted, Sewanee did something about the sticker shock many families feel. And the number and caliber of likely enrollees show that "we didn't take a hit on quality" by ending the bargaining, she said.
Next year, the impact could be even greater. Afton said that campus visits to Sewanee since the announcement of the tuition cut are up 59 percent compared to the same time period the year before.
Other colleges' experiences, however, suggest that there may be costs to holding the line on the discount rate -- at least when you aren't cutting tuition at the same time.
Augustana College is hoping for a first-year class of 710 to 720, and is currently looking at 680 deposits. W. Kent Barnds, vice president of enrollment, said that the college was "hoping for a big May 1 bump," but didn't get one. Augustana will be recruiting some more -- it's on the NACAC list this year, but wasn't last year, when it had a record class of 750.
In thinking about why this year's totals are "a little soft," Barnds said that the discount rate may be the reason. Last year, the college's rate was 53 percent, and this year -- intentionally -- Augustana has held back a bit with aid to those who don't need it. So the discount rate is just over 51 percent, meaning that tuition revenue per student will be up, and a larger share of aid will go to needy students.
But in terms of total students, "this could be a case where we are paying a price for being disciplined" on discount rates, he said.
Ferrum College enrolled 645 new students last year, but is aiming only for 610 this year, since last year's figure was based in part on the needs of a new lacrosse team. Currently, the college is 35 student deposits behind last year's total and believes that when students show up in the fall, the target will be met.
Doug Clark, Ferrum's vice president for enrollment management, said that he is noticing students and families taking their time to decide where to enroll. "It seems like people want to make sure they're making the right decision, and they know they have more time before they turn over the check," he said. "I think a lot of people are comparing financial aid packages and will make the decision based on which school gives them the best deal."
Some colleges are intentionally shifting strategy to focus less on application totals and more on enrollment. Dave Voskuil, vice president of enrollment services at Centenary College in Louisiana, said that his institution saw applications drop by 38 percent, but commitments to enroll in the fall are up 27 percent from this time a year ago.
"We've become more targeted in what we're doing," he said, trying "to spend a lot more time on each applicant." And that time hasn't ended. Centenary considers June and July key recruiting months. The college recently moved from Division I to Division III in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Voskuil said part of the enrollment strategy for the summer is to look for athletes who had hoped to win scholarships to Division I institutions, but didn't.
For those colleges happy with their numbers so far, the question is how much "summer melt" to expect, as some students change plans after submitting deposits.
Stephanie Balmer, vice president for enrollment at Dickinson College, has enough deposits to handle some melt. Dickinson has a target class of 600 for fall, 689 deposits, and a melt rate in recent years of between 7.5 and 8 percent. With reports of many colleges building up huge waiting lists, there is the potential for plenty of melt. If institutions on the top of the admissions food chain admit a few applicants from the waiting list and they enroll, they will turn down the institutions at which they currently have deposits, which might go to their waiting lists, and so on. Of course, many of those on the top don't admit anyone off their waiting lists, at least most years.
Balmer said that she thinks there may be less trickle-down this year -- even if some people on waiting lists get offers. "I think there is a good bit of wait-list fatigue out there," she said. Many students are saying to colleges, in effect, "if you want me to make an emotional connection, you need to say so by May 1," Balmer said.
And that may be why some colleges this year and in recent years, she said, went to their wait lists before May 1. For now, Balmer said she will have to wait to see if her theory is correct.