President Laura Trombley in San Francisco Chronicle

Small colleges raise the bar on admissions
Tanya Schevitz, Chronicle Staff Writer

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Some small colleges that once were considered safe bets for getting in have become dramatically more selective in whom they accept, posting record low admission rates this year.

While the competition has long been fierce at the nation's top-tier colleges and universities, experts say the trend is spreading to small liberal arts colleges such as Pitzer College in Southern California and Bowdoin College in Maine.

No one knows exactly what happened, but it appears that a confluence of factors is at work, including a growing population of high school graduates, a willingness of parents to pony up for a private education and an increase in the number of applications sent by individual students as they hedge their bets.

Every year, Jon Reider, a former Stanford University admissions official and director of college counseling at the private University High School in San Francisco, cautions his students that the frenzy is worse than the reality. But this year, he said, acceptance and rejection letters received by students show a marked difference.

"The schools that traditionally have been a little less selective than the most selective schools ... Claremont, Pitzer, Colgate, Hamilton, Skidmore, Trinity, Middlebury ... just went bananas," Reider said. "Colgate is now where Dartmouth was. Dartmouth is where Amherst was. Amherst is where Brown was. Brown is where Stanford was. Stanford is where Harvard was, and Harvard is all by itself taking 9 percent. ... Things like that are crazy."

Pitzer College, which has about 960 students and is east of Los Angeles, is one of the private campuses that has seen a huge jump in interest from students and subsequently has become much more selective.

Ten years ago, it accepted 65 of every 100 applicants. This year, it took 26 students out of every 100, down from 38 in 100 just last year. Its average SAT score has increased too, from 1,206 last year to 1,323 this year.

"It is huge," said Pitzer President Laura Trombley. "In a way it is kind of affirming. When you are this selective, people begin to certainly rethink their conception or perception of the institution."

Some of the small private colleges are turning away a higher percentage of students than is UC Berkeley, which accepted nearly 24 students for every 100 applications. "Because of the media attention on the frenzy of college admissions and the competition, students are hedging their bets by applying to more places," said Richard Vos, dean of admissions and financial aid at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. "All these things are happening at the same time." Claremont, where applications increased 13 percent to 4,140 this year, admitted 16 of every 100 freshman applicants for this fall, compared with 22 of every 100 last year

Trevor Hill, 17, a senior at University High School, applied to 12 schools in three categories his counselor created: "likely," "reasonable" and "difficult."

He was accepted at Stanford University (where he probably was given a slight edge because both of his parents attended the school), but was placed on waiting lists at schools such as Claremont and Bowdoin. Stanford admitted 10.3 percent of students, slightly lower than last year's 10.9 percent acceptance rate.

"I was a little bit surprised because I got wait-listed at some of the more reasonable schools and got into some of the more difficult schools," Hill said. "From talking with students in past years, I thought that I would have gotten in. Several of my friends who had very competitive numbers had similar experiences."

He is leaning toward attending Carleton College or Macalester College, both in Minnesota, where he was offered admission and can play baseball.

"I would definitely give people the advice to apply to a number of schools where they would be happy, because as good of numbers you have, you never know what is going to happen," Hill said.

Charlene Aguilar, director of college counseling at the private Castilleja School in Palo Alto, said she was surprised this year by the admissions at places like Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and Pomona College in Southern California -- where the admissions rate dropped to 15.7 percent from 17.7 percent.

"The part that feels different is that some of those places where it could go either way, and where you thought maybe one or two would come through, not one of those is coming through," she said. "I try to remind parents and students that you can only go to one place. But when everything comes in at once and you get four no's in one day, that is a shock to anyone."

Harry Kisker, director of college counseling at Branson School in the Marin County town of Ross, said that he has students who applied to 12 schools and were placed on waiting lists at eight to 10 where they normally would have been admitted in the past.

He said that the intensity of this year's admissions is just going to feed the problem in future years.

"The kids out of self-defense feel that if colleges are going to get more arbitrary, they have to apply to more places and it gets worse. Nobody knows how to stop it," Kisker said.

He said that it is good news for colleges that market themselves so that more students apply and then they can deny more students and increase their rankings.

"To get through it whole, you have to understand that this is not an accurate reflection of your kid's achievements. It is just an off-the-wall reading of number crunching that goes on. But to a 17-year-old, this is a big deal," Kisker said.

Claire Fram, 18, a senior at University High School, said she approached the college admissions process with the understanding that it is somewhat of a guessing game from year to year. So while she was somewhat surprised at the results, she wasn't too upset.

The 13 schools she applied to range from reach schools like Princeton, and others she thought would be likely acceptances, such as Bowdoin, which now accepts just about 19 in 100 students, down from 22 in 100 last year.

Although, she ended up getting into her first choice school of Barnard, she was a little surprised that she didn't get into Bowdoin or Middlebury, which were also high on her list.

"Some of the schools I had anticipated getting, I didn't," Fram said.

Even colleges that still accept a majority of students are getting more selective. Mills College in Oakland accepted 60 percent of students this year, down from 65 percent last year -- and 82 percent 10 years ago.

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This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle