While students are obsessing over their college applications, they might be surprised to learn that the colleges are worrying, too — over whether they will get the kind and number of applicants they want.
(This story is the second in a series of five. See links below for other stories in the series.)
In recent years, many colleges have begun going on the road to generate more interest. The most recent annual National Association for College Admissions Counseling conference was held in Salt Lake City last fall. In the university world, it is the place to see and be seen.
"The marketing techniques have been injected into this process and I think have really created problems," said Charles Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown University. "If you went to our national association and looked at that exhibit hall, it would look like a trade show.
"I think that's not really in the best interest of the students and schools in the end," he added, though he attended the Salt Lake City conference. "It's important to keep your finger on the pulse, and here we have 3,600 people from high schools and colleges all across the country."
Recently, Georgetown representative and admissions officer Gregg Roberts made the pitch to students at Langley High School, a public school in a wealthy suburb of northern Virginia.
"The college is putting their best foot forward, too, because they need you in order to stay in their business," said Meg Brinker, a college counselor at Langley High. "Really, the whole admissions process is a business. And so, they need you to keep up their numbers. So, it's a two-way street. They're trying to impress you just as much as you're trying to impress them."
Deacon thinks he knows what's responsible for the commercialization of college admissions — the college rankings. Georgetown ranks 24th in the annual U.S. News & World Report survey of colleges.
Deacon gives little credence to these lists.
"We're a society that ranks," he said. "We rank the top 10 books of the month. We rank the top 10 basketball teams or football teams. And I think that there is an attitude of trying to somehow find some way of distinguishing. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the way these rankings are drawn is way too heavily weighted toward dollar signs, and not enough weighted toward quality of educational opportunity."
But students or their families seem to love them.
"I think it plays a big role, especially to my parents," said Elliot Formal, a Langley student. "They try to make it seem very important, because they want me to go to one of the best universities so they can talk about it with their friends and what not."
One of the biggest tools for improving a college's rankings has also become one of the most controversial — programs that admit anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent of the incoming class months ahead of the usual deadlines. The programs are called "early decision," and they have roiled the admissions process at elite colleges like little else over the last decade.
Here's how it works: A student is only supposed to apply to one college or university early. If admitted under early decision, the student is bound to attend. It improves the college's increasingly important yield, which is the number of kids who are admitted and actually enroll.
At first, it was a tool to help identify the kids who most want to attend a particular school. But more and more students are being selected early, putting pressure on all the other kids to follow suit.
"There are students who aren't ready to make that commitment," said Suzanne Colligan, a counselor at Georgetown Visitation, a Catholic girls' high school. "They're not mature enough. Maybe they're not sophisticated enough. Maybe they don't have the kind of college counseling or education that other students have."
"That early action, early decision piece, sometimes it becomes a very frightening thing for the student," said Jacqueline Pegram, a guidance counselor at Benjamin Banneker High School, a selective, mainly African-American, public school. "They feel pressured."
"I don't like the whole idea of once you're in through early decision, you have to go to that university," said Andrew Bontrous, a Langley student, "because in case if you change your mind at the last minute, you can't."
"If I get into the school that I'm doing early decision to, then I know the second half of my senior year's going to be a lot easier," added Formal, the Langley student. "The pressure's going to be gone. … Half the year's going to be a party, basically."
Some colleges have begun to admit that not everybody's doing it — only the most privileged, best connected and most savvy, and those who don't have to wait for the best financial-aid package.
"To the extent that colleges have pushed early decision as a way in, they have gained more power over students," Deacon said. "They force students to make decisions that perhaps they weren't ready for."
Deacon believes Georgetown offers a better alternative — "early action." Students can apply early to the university, but the decision is not binding.
But last year, only 46 percent of the students Georgetown admitted decided to enroll. The figure is probably much lower than it would have been with a binding "early decision."
Last fall, two colleges, Yale and Stanford universities, joined several other elite schools in ending their binding early-decision programs.
It's a bizarre dance. More and more people are going to college, creating more competition. And the colleges are working harder to recruit students so as to be seen as more competitive to attract more students.
"I think one for me is when they call your house," said Tiffany Jackson, a Banneker student. "Isn't that like a my-teacher-called-my-house kind of feeling? It's a, 'Oh, they must be really interested in me if they took time out to get on the telephone and call me.' And it gives you that more personal [touch]. It's more personal than a letter."
So who has the power in this relationship, the kids who are applying or the institution that's looking them over?
"Well, it goes back and forth," Deacon said. "The institution has the power initially. Well, the student has the power initially to decide whether to apply. We, then, have the power to decide who to accept. And then it reverses itself back again because they, then, have the power to decide whether to accept us. So, I think that there are lots of choices that lots of people make along the way."
ABCNEWS' Michel Martin and Courtney King contributed to this report.