Ivy League Crunch Brings New Cachet to Next Tier

Ivy League Crunch Brings New Cachet to Next Tier


Published : May 16, 2007 / The New York Times

Lehigh University has never been as sought after as Stanford, Yale or Harvard. But this year, awash in applications, it churned out rejection letters and may break more hearts when it comes to its waiting list.

Call them second-tier colleges (a phrase some administrators despise) or call them the new Ivies (this, they can live with). Twenty-five to 40 universities like Lehigh, traditionally perceived as being a notch below the most elite, have seen their cachet climb because of the astonishing competitive crush at the top.

“It’s harder to get into Bowdoin now than it was to get into Princeton when I worked there,” said William M. Shain, dean of admissions and financial aid at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me., who worked at Princeton in the 1970s, which is one of those benefiting from the spillover as the country’s most prestigious colleges turn away nearly 9 out of 10 applicants.

At Lehigh, known for its strength in engineering and business, about 12,000 students applied this year. That is a whopping 50 percent increase in applications over seven years ago and more than 10 times the seats available in a freshman class of 1,150. The median SAT score of admitted students has climbed about 10 points a year in recent years, officials said.

Students have generally been quicker to adapt to the new realities than parents have been, many guidance counselors said.

“My sense is that parents are a lot more concerned with how the name is going to look to neighbors and family members, and there is a real sense among parents that it’s almost embarrassing if your child has to settle for a lower-level school,” said Carolyn Lawrence, a private college counselor and the author of a blog, AdmissionsAdvice.com.

Some students who might have readily won admission to Lehigh, Middlebury College, Colgate University, Pomona College, Emory University or New York University just a few years ago are now relegated to waiting lists, left to confront the long odds that an offer of admission might materialize over the next month.

John Dunham, a senior at the private Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J., had trained his sights on Bucknell University and Lafayette College. He was rejected by Bucknell and put on the waiting list at Lafayette. His college counselor pushed him toward Kenyon College in Ohio, or as the counselor put it “the Williams of the Midwest.”

But Mr. Dunham, a solid student who played football and baseball in high school, decided to play baseball on an athletic scholarship at Central Connecticut State.

“People are definitely broadening their horizons, because it’s gotten so competitive,” Mr. Dunham said.

The logjam is the result of supply and demand. The number of students graduating from high school has been increasing, and the preoccupation with the top universities, once primarily a Northeastern phenomenon, has become a more national obsession. High-achieving students are also applying to more colleges than they used to, primarily because of uncertainty over where they will be admitted.

Supply, however, has remained constant. Most of the sought-after universities have not expanded their freshman classes. The result, said Jonathan Miller, a senior at Mamaroneck High School in suburban Westchester County, N.Y., is that many classmates perceive institutions like Tufts University, Bowdoin, the University of Rochester and Lehigh in a new light. “I would say that high school students are looking more and more at these schools,” he said, “the way they used to look at the Ivies.”

An A student with good SAT scores, Mr. Miller said that he considered applying to Brown University, among others, but that his guidance counselor discouraged him, emphasizing the tough odds. Mr. Miller decided instead to apply early admission to Tufts, and by December, had been accepted. He said he was delighted.

Some students who have accepted offers from these colleges were rejected by the most prestigious universities. Others, keenly aware of the extreme competition at the top, decided at the outset to focus on colleges more likely to admit them.

“I’m sure part of what we’re seeing is people are saying, ‘Well, if the Ivies and Duke are inaccessible, where do I go to get a similar academic experience?’ ” said Jonathan Burdick, dean of admissions and financial aid at Rochester.

There are other reasons, too, why these colleges and universities find their stock climbing. To position themselves in the fiercely competitive market, they have hired stronger faculty; built new libraries, science complexes, dining halls, fitness centers and dormitories; and created international programs and interdisciplinary majors. Many have also sought to transform themselves from regional institutions to national ones, recruiting across the country.

At Middlebury, applications have increased by 1,000 in each of the last two years; nearly 7,200 students applied this year, compared with 5,200 in 2005. At Kenyon, about 4,600 students applied this year, while 2,000 did six years ago. Colgate received 8,752 applications this year, compared with 5,852 a decade ago.

And at the University of Vermont, a state institution, nearly 19,000 applications poured in this year, compared with 7,400 seven years ago. Many of the most prestigious public universities like Michigan and Virginia have also become much more selective, especially for out-of-state applicants.

The academic profile of students enrolling at these colleges is improving, based on average SAT scores and other data.

“We’re getting a remarkably gifted group of students,” said Gerard P. Lennon, associate dean in the college of engineering and applied sciences at Lehigh, who has taught at the university for 27 years. The median SAT score in the combined verbal and math parts of the test is now 1,320 out of 1,600. (That is not counting the writing section of the test.)

But the spillover at the second level has also created its own spillover; some students who not long ago would have won admission to these colleges no longer are.

The admission rate at Pomona, in Claremont, Calif., was about 15 percent this spring; it was 38 percent 20 years ago. Bowdoin’s rate was 18.5 percent this year and 32 percent eight years ago. At Lehigh, 31 percent were accepted this spring, compared with 47 percent in 2001.

High school guidance counselors have become the reality instructors, encouraging students and parents to think more broadly about colleges.

“Now a kid who is applying to Harvard, Yale, Princeton is also applying to the Lehighs and Lafayettes,” said Brett Levine, director of guidance at Madison High School in New Jersey. “It’s the same tier, basically.”

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