When high-school senior Maxine Wally got rejected from Northwestern University last month, she lay down on her mother's bed and cried. She thought she had a good shot. Wally consistently took the toughest classes she could fit into her schedule, and her grade point average puts her near the top of the class at her well-regarded public high school in Berkeley, Calif. After months of researching Northwestern on the Web and grilling friends, teachers and advisers who had gone there, Maxine pinned her hopes on getting accepted. "I've been trying to tell her—gently—that getting into college can be very competitive," said Maxine's mom Wendy. But young people, sighed Wendy, "want to follow their dreams."
For students like Maxine who are applying to college for next fall, that dream is turning out to be frustratingly unobtainable. It turns out the odds of getting into a selective college have never been worse. Why? It's simple demographics. A little less than two decades ago the biggest population bulge in the history of America, the baby boomers, were busy having kids. Now those kids are in junior high school and high school and creating a demographic boomlet all their own. This spring the largest number of high-school graduates in the history of the country—some 3.32 million—will don a cap and gown, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Next year, at the peak of the peak, the number of high-school graduates is expected to top 3.33 million. "For many middle- and upper-middle-class kids, the transition from high school to college was never without some obvious stress," says Barmak Nassirian, spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "But now it has become a multiyear nightmare."
Last year about three-quarters of four-year colleges and universities reported an increase in the number of applications from the previous year. This year applications are pouring in again. The deadline for most colleges is between Dec. 1 and Jan. 15, and although administrators don't tally the numbers of applications they receive until later in the year, many admissions officers—even some at schools not normally considered highly selective—are already calling it a banner year. Last year Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., got 4,000 applications for 455 seats. By the first week in December the school had already topped that number—and the deadline was still six weeks away. Colorado College, which received 3,410 applications for 500 seats in 2002, expects to break 5,000 this year. Last year Ball State in Muncie, Ind., saw applications jump 22 percent when it got 13,000 applications for 3,100 spaces. So far this year applications are up an additional 15 percent.
Flagship state schools, like the University of Texas at Austin, where the number of students applying has jumped from 14,982 to 27,237 in the last 10 years, are turning away more kids than they want to. "The positive side is that we get to be more selective," says Gary Lavergne, UT's director of admission research. "But when you see a kid collapse with grief because they didn't get in, well, that's not fun."
College counselors say that as schools get choosier, parents have grown more resigned to the realities of kids' prospects. "It used to be that parents would go crazy if their kid couldn't get into a status school," says Harvard admissions officer turned private college counselor Chuck Hughes, who runs a company called Road to College. "Now parents are starting to realize how crazy competitive it is." To hedge their bets, kids are applying to more schools than ever, too. In 1991, 59 percent of prospective college students applied to three or more colleges. In 2006, 71 percent applied to three or more and 18 percent applied to seven or more.
College admissions officers are split. On the one hand, they say they don't like being forced to reject so many worthy kids. On the other hand, they're enjoying—and profiting from—the attention. As the number of applicants rises, admission becomes increasingly selective. Most parents and students equate selectivity with a quality education, which in turn encourages even more applications and allows colleges to become even more selective.
So, despite the fact that some schools are turning away larger and larger numbers of hopeful applicants, colleges are spending big bucks on marketing, about $2,000 per student, to keep applications rolling in. And it's not just glossy brochures and interactive Web sites. Ball State, for instance, recently hired a public relations firm to create a brand image for the school and come up with a tag line ("Education, redefined"). These days the university advertises itself on billboards and through a series of slick television ads. When it comes to marketing, "sometimes it feels like we're all locked in an arms race," admits Bryn Mawr admissions chief Jenny Rickard. "But no college wants to back away," even though they are getting more than enough applicants to keep their institutions healthy.
At some colleges the bumper crop of applications is causing crowd-control problems. For years Rutgers University has run a private bus to ferry prospective students and their parents around its sprawling New Brunswick, N.J., campus. But in the last five years, as the number of applicants has jumped from 26,000 to 43,000, there's no more room on the bus. By the first week in September parents had already reserved most of the spots through December. The university is looking at building a massive new visitors center to handle the overflow.
By 2015 the number of high-school graduates will begin to drop back out of the stratosphere. But admissions directors are already worrying about the shrinking pool of future applicants, especially the sliver of those who can afford to foot the $40,000 annual tab. The most selective institutions have begun to aggressively recruit applicants from China, Korea, India and South America. Publicly, college admissions officers say they're encouraging international students to enroll in order to improve diversity on campus. At most colleges, though, the active outreach is directed at wealthy international students who can afford to pay the full sticker price of a private four-year education.
For her part, Maxine Wally is sad but resigned. The sheer numbers of applicants this year, she says, makes the process "feel almost random." But a few days after her rejection from Northwestern she'd dried her tears and was putting the finishing touches on her applications to Barnard, New York University and Boston University. "I know I'm one of many, but that doesn't mean I'm not smart and driven and ready to be a committed student."