Liberal arts colleges see decline in applications

While Yale celebrated a record total of about 26,000 applications this year — a roughly 14 percent rise over last year’s total — admissions news at Williams College offered less cause for celebration.

Williams, a renowned liberal arts college about three hours north of Yale, saw a 20 percent drop in applications compared to last year, down to 6,050 from 7,552, a college spokesman said. Other top liberal arts colleges, such as Swarthmore and Middlebury colleges, also saw a decrease in their applicant pools this year, despite posting record applicant totals last years. The dip in applications at the “little Ivies” — in marked contrast to the application increases at top research universities — is likely a result of the economic recession, increased selectivity and perceived financial aid weaknesses, five college counselors said in interviews this week.

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When asked why Yale saw a rise in applicants while top-notch colleges like Williams saw a drop, Dean of Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel pointed to Yale’s “incredibly generous” financial aid, as well as the propensity of high-achieving students to apply to a small handful of colleges.

The five college counselors interviewed, meanwhile, identified the economy as a leading factor in the dip.

With the economy faltering, many parents are pushing their children to apply to larger schools, said Alice Kleeman, college advisor at the public Menlo-Atherton High School outside San Francisco. Such parents are often under the impression — which Kleeman said was unsubstantiated — that their children will be more likely to secure jobs if they attend large schools, particularly those with a pre-professional focus, she said.

Kleeman’s comments were echoed by Michael Hallman, director of college counseling at the private Meadows School in Las Vegas, who said that many of his conversations with current juniors and their parents have reflected an eye toward the future and a growing uncertainty about the economy.

Kleeman added that some families may not be aware of the generous financial aid available at many top liberal arts colleges.

“There’s a little of that idea that smaller liberal arts colleges might be less able to weather the economic downturn,” she said. “But a lot of us are working very hard to combat that myth.”

Still, some reasons for application decisions may be unrelated to the economy, Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, said. Students may simply be intimidated by the uptick in applications at small liberal arts colleges, which have seen proportionally greater increases in selectivity than the Ivies have over the past few years, he said.

At Harvard and Yale, he said, “it’s gone from impossible to really impossible.” But, “from other schools [such as Williams], it’s gone from very difficult to impossible.”

Last year, Williams College received a record number of applications, up 17 percent from the previous year, Williams spokesman Jim Kolesar said. The college announced major improvements to its financial aid in November 2007, replacing all loan expectations in student financial aid packages with grants.

When asked what may have caused the dip in applications, Kolesar pointed to a simpler factor: the addition of a supplemental essay to the college’s application, potentially deterring less serious applicants.

Still, Williams’s application total was the third highest in the college’s history, Reider noted, adding that top liberal arts college will have no difficulty filling their classes with highly talented students.

“It’s not exactly a buyer’s market if you’re a high school kid this year,” Reider said.

Middlebury College received 12 percent fewer applications than last year, down to 6,905 from 7,823 total applications compared to last year, Middlebury’s Public Affairs Director Sarah Ray said. Swarthmore College received about 10 percent fewer applications than last year, down to about 5,500 from 6,121, a Swarthmore spokeswoman said.

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