Colleges: The Waiting Game

High-school students just survived what experts say was the most brutal college-admissions season ever—but now it's the colleges' turn to sweat. A record number of applications, a wobbly economy and changes to financial-aid and early-decision programs have made it difficult for many of the most selective colleges to gauge how many of their accepted students will actually enroll. To hedge their bets, some schools accepted more students than usual and also assembled longer wait lists (graphic).

Institutions rely on historical models to determine their acceptance totals, says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, and "most of the time [the models] are amazingly good. But we run into problems during periods of turmoil." This year's dilemma was generated by a record number of high-school seniors—the classes of 2008 and 2009 represent the tip of the baby boom's baby boomlet—who are all competing for roughly the same number of freshmen slots. Many students concluded that they could improve their odds by applying to a greater number of schools, says Maria Laskaris, Dartmouth's dean of admissions. A few years ago, most students applied to five or six schools; this year, college counselors at some of the more competitive high schools had to impose caps of 10 to 12 per student.

The problem for colleges, says Nassirian, is that they don't know how many of their accepted students have also been accepted elsewhere—or "if they're the student's first choice, or their 10th. Students always think the colleges hold all the cards, but they don't." As a result, some college administrators are working the phones, lobbying their best candidates for a commitment. "That," Nassirian says, "was unheard of 20 years ago."