Colleges court the `in' crowd

With an array of acceptances, teens become choosy


When the Amtrak train pulled into Baltimore's Penn Station, the conductor announced in a baritone that the last cars were reserved for passengers headed to Brown University. A bunch of nervous teenagers jumped aboard.

All have been admitted to Brown, but for some this train ride might help them decide. Will they go to the Ivy League college in Providence, R.I., or pick New York University? Or perhaps Princeton or Swarthmore?

These are students lucky enough to have choices, and with a May 1 deadline looming, they are up against it. But if they are nervous, so are the colleges.

With a growing percentage of high school seniors applying to seven or more colleges and universities, admissions officers are finding it more difficult to predict how many of those they accepted will enroll. So this month, the most selective colleges and universities are going to new lengths to woo the students they admitted.

For the past 20 years, Brown has reserved cars on an East Coast Amtrak train so that students who have been accepted can spend a day there. But now it is holding sessions on campus for their parents, too. Other colleges are reaching out to students on the Web and working the phones to persuade the undecided.

And, just in case enough students don't say yes, some colleges are putting more applicants on their waiting lists, according to Judy Hingle, director of professional development at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. That gives the schools insurance that they will be able to fill their dorms and classrooms.

"Once we send out our admit letters, the tables turn very quickly on us," said John Latting, director of undergraduate admissions at the Johns Hopkins University. Latting believes that many of the students he admits have also been accepted to as many as half a dozen other top institutions.

So Hopkins holds three open houses on campus for students to come for the day or the night. Its alumni give receptions in their homes around the country. And new in the past several years is virtual recruiting, with in-house chats and blogs written by campus guidance officers.

"Over time we have been elevating our efforts and doing more things and doing them more intensely," Latting said. "It is a competitive world we are in. We are trying to convince students to choose us."

This year, the University of Maryland had a group of its students call all 10,200 applicants admitted to College Park, hoping that the contact would make a difference. The school will enroll about 4,000 students.

Barbara Gill, admissions director at College Park, says the school has tried to personalize the process. Today about 90 percent of students visit the campus before deciding to enroll, compared with 20 percent a decade ago.

Brown hopes that students taking the train will meet future classmates and decide to plunk down their deposit by May 1. Two young admissions counselors were on board, as were two Brown students, to answer questions. The mood on the train last week was nearly celebratory, with high school seniors chatting away happily to other students they had just met. They compared one college to another and talked about their choices.

That they have so many options is nerve-racking for college officials. "Every dean doesn't sleep some part of the month of April," said Jim Miller, dean of admissions at Brown.

The kind of student they worry about is like Michael Tesfaye, who attends the Calverton School in Calvert County. "I'm stuck between Columbia and Brown," he said on the train to Brown.

He applied to 16 colleges - among them the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Virginia, Hopkins and the University of California, Berkeley. He got into 14 schools.

His family came from Ethiopia, and his goal is to be a U.S. senator from New York. He says he shouldn't have applied to all those colleges, particularly a couple in Maine and one in the South, where he knew he would never want to go. But, he said, he did so on the advice of people who were concerned that he didn't have any "safety" schools.

Several students on the train from Baltimore City and County public high schools said they have been drawn to the excitement of New York City and now must choose between New York University or Columbia, and Brown.

Emma Sartwell, a student at the Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson, said she was leaning toward NYU but had yet to visit Brown. So she had an open mind. "I feel I can't really go wrong in terms of caliber," she said, a sentiment echoed by many students as they talked through their decision.

Nicolas Gonzalez, a 17-year-old from Los Angeles who was on the train, applied to nine colleges. He was rejected by Stanford and Harvard universities, and got into Hopkins but won't go there. "Brown was my first choice until I got to Cornell," he said. Now he doesn't know. "This is the hardest decision," he said.

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