College admission, but with a catch

Jason Song
April 24, 2005

Like most high school seniors, Kemper O'Neill knew that a big envelope from a college meant good news this time of year, and a small one meant bad. But what to make of the medium-sized envelope from Dickinson?

It brought word that she is welcome to attend the well-regarded liberal arts college in Carlisle, Pa., if she's willing to wait until January.

"When I first saw it, my jaw dropped," said O'Neill, a senior at Baltimore's Bryn Mawr School. "I'd never heard of something like that before."

A small but apparently growing number of colleges are offering second-semester admission to would-be freshmen, part of an effort to bolster campus finances by keeping every dorm bed filled all year long. Some might otherwise go vacant during the second term, when many upperclassmen study abroad or move off-campus.

While second-semester admission can be good for a college's bottom line, it can pose another hurdle for high school seniors during an already stressful time. The idea of having the fall free for travel or work is appealing to a few, especially if a school is their No. 1 choice, but staying behind while friends go off to college is a powerful deterrent to most.

"It's a difficult option we present them," said Monica Inzer, dean of admissions and financial aid at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., which has been offering spring admission for about five years and hopes about 40 students will enroll for January. "It's a decision they thought they would never have to make."

No one keeps a precise count of how many colleges offer midyear admission or how many students participate in such programs, but the practice seems to be on the rise. Officials at the National Association for College Admission Counseling say they're aware of at least 20 colleges, mostly in New England, that offer delayed admission.

Such prestigious schools as Middlebury College in Vermont, Washington University in St. Louis and Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., all have established second-semester programs.

Dickinson, Hamilton and Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., have begun offering delayed admission during the past several years. Larger schools, including the University of Southern California and the University of Maryland, College Park, also use the practice.

"From the anecdotal evidence I've heard, it wouldn't surprise me if the number of January admits is going up," said David Hawkins, director of public policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Students can pay up to $5,000 a year to live on campus, and college administrators want to keep their dorms full. But that is difficult when students leave campus.

At Wheaton, more than 120 students left campus housing this semester to live nearby or study abroad. Admitting 40 students for the spring helped the college make up the difference, said Gail Berson, dean of admissions and student aid. "They are but one piece of a complex financial puzzle," she said.

St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland typically accepts about 10 midyear students. "Every college is interested in keeping their beds full," said Wesley Jordan, dean of admissions.

Besides helping financially, spring-semester admissions also allow colleges to accept some students they might otherwise turn away. At Hamilton, admissions officers take their favorite near-misses -- students whose SAT scores were a few points short, whose writing samples were a little weak or who didn't interview well -- into a group that is considered for spring enrollment.

"They're not our most complete admits, but they are our most exciting admits," Inzer said. "We know they can all be superstars on campus."

Some colleges pick students for spring admission who they know favor their school. "It's not necessarily a popular option for students, but if it's important enough for them to go to Dickinson, they will hang on," said Robert Massa, vice president of enrollment.

Other colleges try to make the option more palatable by offering foreign study during the fall. For years, Skidmore did little during the fall to stay involved with the freshmen who would arrive in the spring.

"We realized that wasn't the best idea," said Mary Lou Bates, dean of admissions and financial aid. "We felt it would be better to have a real program to make them feel part of the school."

So the college began offering a fall semester in London, where students are accompanied by two Skidmore professors. The freshmen receive copies of the student newspaper, and the college accepts the credits they earn. At Hamilton, students are allowed to take courses at University of Limerick in Ireland before coming to campus.

"I was really concerned about leaving for four months and missing the routine of college and home, but it turned out great," said Carly Chase, a Skidmore freshman who went to London. "We really got to know each other really well and became a family."

Chase said adjusting to life on campus was difficult at first, but things are fine now: "We've all made other friends, and things are normal."

Despite study-abroad opportunities, second semester can be a tough sell. Many colleges say that just 10 percent of students who are offered spring admission agree to enroll, far less than the fall acceptance rate.

Sean Foley, a senior at the St. Paul's School in Brooklandville, said Wheaton was his first choice. He likes New England, found Wheaton's campus appealing and says the students were "the most friendly I met." A right fielder at St. Paul's, Foley also thought he could play on Wheaton's baseball team. "I was excited to go there," Foley said.

But when Foley got a spring-semester acceptance letter, Wheaton dropped from the top of his list. He couldn't imagine staying in Baltimore or traveling while his friends left for school.

"It was the biggest turn-off you could imagine," he said. "It made me feel like I was on a tier below the other students." Foley declined Wheaton's offer and has accepted admission to Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

Kemper O'Neill -- who says Dickinson was her first choice -- is mulling her options. "It's not easy. Part of me wants to go to school in the fall," she said.

Some students embrace the idea of having that time off to do as they please. After all, they point out, British and German students traditionally take a year off before college.

Sarah Attman, a Bryn Mawr senior who is bound for Middlebury College in the spring, plans to go to India first, where she will travel, do environmental work and practice yoga.

Said Attman: "It's the sweetest thing ever. We're 17 or 18 years old, and we don't know what we want to do. It's a perfect time to figure out what you want."

But Hannah Fetting, who will attend USC, has more mundane plans. She intends to keep working at a Roland Park coffee shop to save money for next year and says she'll be making plenty of trips to nearby Video Americain. "I think I'll get a [frequent-user] discount," she said.

Fetting has misgivings about staying home. It is a tradition for recent Bryn Mawr graduates to come back at Thanksgiving break to speak in the school's chapel about their college experiences. "It will be weird not to be a part of that," she said.

She holds out this hope: If some students turn down USC, there is a chance that she could be admitted earlier. "I keep thinking: 'Please, please, please, take me in the fall.'



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