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Strain on all sides as students put off college selections

Financial issues complicate, extend admissions decisions

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / June 25, 2008

Most years by this time, college-bound students are proudly wearing their school colors, thumbing through course catalogs, and chatting online with potential roommates.

But in this, the most unpredictable admissions cycle in memory, with its long waiting lists and a worrisome economy, a startling number of incoming freshmen are still torn over their college plans, guidance counselors and admissions officers said. With July just around the corner, some wait-listed students still hold out hope they will get into their top-choice school, while others who have already been accepted are not sure they can afford theirs.

The uncertainty is also creating anxiety for colleges. They worry that some students who have accepted admission offers may change their mind, throwing carefully assembled freshman classes into flux. Admissions officers also suspect that more students are re serving spots at multiple schools, a frowned-upon practice called double depositing.

Colleges call the exodus of students who have made deposits the "summer melt," and worry it will intensify this year.

"In some cases, the summer melt could become the summer flood," said David Hawkins, director of Public Policy and Research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "Students are still hedging their bets, and colleges are definitely concerned."

Colleges traditionally have been able to predict their incoming classes with confidence, closely estimating how many accepted students would ultimately enroll. But a host of variables has made this admissions cycle volatile.

Some colleges, notably Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Virginia, dropped early admissions programs, and many top-flight universities expanded financial aid for middle-class families. A slumping economy and uncertainty around private student loans have further altered the landscape.

Many colleges, including Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Amherst, expanded their wait lists to make sure they could fill out their incoming classes, then delved into the lists far deeper than usual. That had a ripple effect throughout higher education and created a scenario where many students committed to one college while staying on wait lists at others.

"Here's the deposit, but if X, Y, Z calls, I'm out of here in a heartbeat," said Kevin Kelly, director of admissions at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, describing the thinking of some wait-listed students.

As a result, colleges are keeping a closer eye on admitted students, contacting them more frequently and sending out registration and housing forms earlier.

Michael London, president of College Coach, a Watertown-based educational consulting firm, said that "the economy is, by far, the number one reason we're seeing so much movement this late."

Many colleges accepted more students this spring in anticipation of losing more from wait-list maneuverings and migrations to less expensive schools.

"That's something we're all silently worrying about," said John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College. BC, like many schools of its caliber, costs close to $50,000 a year for students who do not receive financial aid.

And public colleges are fielding numerous calls from families who are rethinking their ability to pay the bills at private institutions. Steven Briggs, admissions director at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, said, "I don't think it's going to sort itself out until September."

Eric Steele, an 18-year-old from Arlington, is among those students whose college destination remains unclear. He has accepted admission at the University of Hartford, a private school that costs about $37,000 a year without financial aid. Yet he remains hopeful he'll get in off the wait list at UMass-Amherst, which costs about half as much. "It's about an $8,000 difference," with financial aid, Steele said.

"It's been stressful," he said. "A lot of my friends are choosing their classes and getting their housing lined up, but for me things are kind of on hold."

That uncertainty makes many students decide the wait list isn't worth the hassle. Sam Ullian, an 18-year-old from Needham, remains on the wait list at three schools - the University of New Hampshire, Ithaca College, and Elon University in North Carolina.

Ullian has gotten tired of waiting. Now she is all but certain she will attend Miami University in Ohio, and has made plans to attend orientation this week.

"It would be weird if I went to orientation and then went somewhere else," she said.

But more indecisive students don't mind prolonging the process, even paying deposits - typically a few hundred nonrefundable dollars - at multiple schools. Colleges frown on the practice but suspect it is becoming more widespread.

"There's no way to know, but there's definitely that fear of more students double-depositing," said Jeannine Lalonde, assistant dean of admission at the University of Virginia. Some colleges are mulling raising the deposit amounts as a deterrent.

But Hawkins, of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said some admissions officers realize that students are responding to colleges' hesitance.

"There's a degree of recognition among colleges that it takes two to tango," he said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com

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