April can be a cruel month for Elise Seraydarian, the admissions director at Goucher College.
She has spent the last year wooing thousands of high school students, trying to entice them to enroll at Goucher. They've been showered with mail, courted through phone calls, even treated to an excursion to the Inner Harbor.
Now Ms. Seraydarian must wait to see how many will choose Goucher.
"During the day I feel pretty upbeat," says Ms. Seraydarian, who is in her seventh year at Goucher. "At night, I break out into a cold sweat. My livelihood depends on the whims of 17-and 18-year-olds. That's a frightening thought."
Those decisions are also crucial to Goucher. After all, those teen-agers will end up being the Towson college's customers, each paying as much as $21,000 a year in tuition, room and board.
If Goucher's efforts yield a class of 250 instead of its goal of 275, the college will lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.
Across the country this month, admissions officials are fretting over the size, quality and demographics of the freshman classes that are taking shape.
Because the number of college age youth has dropped almost 20 percent in the last 15 years, emerging high school graduates are being sought like never before.
Elon College in North Carolina sends T-shirts and shorts to its recruits. Other colleges have hired telemarketing firms to make nearly daily contact with prospects.
Some undecided high school students are even receiving home visits from college representatives hoping to close the deal.
Nowhere is the pressure more acute than at private liberal arts colleges, which depend heavily on student tuition.
"We live and die by enrollment," said Thomas E. Scheye, acting president of Loyola College in Baltimore. With an undergraduate enrollment of roughly 3,000, Loyola is the second largest private college in the state, behind the Johns Hopkins University.
If Loyola's freshman class drops off significantly from the goal of 750, Dr. Scheye said, maintenance and construction will have to be put on hold.
At Western Maryland College in Westminster, staff and faculty have gone without a raise for three years. The best way to bolster the campus' finances is to harvest a bumper freshman crop.
These days, the admissions office has pressed the whole campus into the recruiting business.
While some professors were initially reluctant, attitudes changed the budget tightened the last few years and now many instructors call and meet with prospective students.
"They figured it out pretty quickly," said Martha O'Connell, director of admissions at Western Maryland.
College use different strategies in their recruiting battles.
Western Maryland, which accepted roughly 80 percent of its applicants in hopes of attracting 400 new freshmen and transfer students, has staged candlelight dinners for admitted students this month.
At Hood College, prospective students and their parents have been taken on horse-drawn carriage rides through Frederick.
Washington College, which is in Chestertown on the Eastern Shore, brought its president, dean, several faculty and board members across the Chesapeake Bay to a reception last week at a Baltimore County hunt club. Some two dozen prospective students and their families attended.
All of the colleges are after the same targets: academically solid students with at least middle-class means to afford a private college education.
Consider Rebecca Marsh, a 17-year-old from Laurel who received honorable mention in the state's distinguished scholar program last fall.
She applied to only three colleges but has been flooded with mail and attention from numerous schools, thanks to her academic record and scores on standardized tests.
"It got really tiring. These were schools I wasn't even interested in," said Ms. Marsh. "It got to be there was somebody calling every other day from some school."
Despite all the solicitations, Ms. Marsh said she isn't ready to leave home and will probably attend community college. If she does, she will pass up a $10,000 scholarship offer from Western Maryland.
The college aggressively sought winners of the distinguished scholars program, offering handsome scholarships to the students as soon as they were named last fall, whether or not they had applied. The tactic paid off and several enrolled, Ms. O'Connell said.
Overall, Western Maryland gives 80 percent of its students some sort of financial aid, based either on a student's financial need, academic credentials or both. On the average, the college's financial aid knocks the actual bill down to 63 percent of the stated tuition of $14,510, according to Ms. O'Connell. Many of those students also get aid and loans from other sources.
Such a strategy -- known in the trade as "discounting" -- has its limits. A college can boost its enrollment by "buying" students with large scholarships, but the bottom line suffers.