First came the good news for St. Olaf College: Early-decision applications were way up this year.
Now comes the bad news: The number of regular applications is way down, about 30 percent fewer than at this time last year.
"To be quite honest, I don't know how we'll end up," said Derek Gueldenzoph, dean of admissions at the college in Northfield, Minn.
Getting exactly the right enrollment — always a tricky proposition — is especially crucial for small colleges with tuition-driven budgets. Last month, Beloit College in Wisconsin said it would eliminate about 40 positions because 36 fewer students than expected had enrolled. The college has about 1,300 students and gets three-quarters of its $55-million budget from tuition.
Not all private colleges are reporting fewer applications this year, but a survey of 371 private institutions released last week found two-thirds were greatly concerned about preventing a decline in enrollment.
Admissions officers point to several possible reasons for the drop in applications. Some students have pared their college lists this year. Many more are looking at less expensive state universities. Many institutions accepted more students under binding early-decision programs, and each such acceptance drains off an average of 8 to 10 regular-decision applications. Some experts also suspect that students are delaying their college plans.
The deadline at most colleges is still a few weeks off, so a last-minute flood of applications could raise the numbers to last year's level. But admissions officers say they are not counting on that.
"I've been doing this a long time, and I don't remember a year when applications started out behind and didn't end up behind," said Steve Thomas, director of admissions at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where regular applications are running about 14 percent behind.
If some private colleges are grappling with the specter of too few applications, public universities and community colleges are having the opposite problem — more students at a time when their state financing is being slashed. In California and Florida, some public institutions have been forced to cap enrollment. Even in states like Pennsylvania, where the number of high school graduates is declining, applications to public universities are growing.