Why College Applications Skyrocketed This Year

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All across the nation, colleges are reporting a record number of applications received for the Class of 2015.

Harvard College, in Cambridge, Mass., reported a 15 percent increase in overall applicants from last year, to nearly 35,000 for roughly 2,200 acceptance slots.

At Syracuse University, in Syracuse, N.Y., the admissions office has received more than 25,270 applications, setting a school record with a 13 percent increase from last year.

And at Stanford University, the school received over 34,000 applications to fill its 1,700 slots for the incoming freshmen class.

Alan Krueger, an economics professor at Princeton University and the U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy, said multiple factors are contributing to this increase.

"The job market is still quite weak, and it's not unusual when the job market is weak for students to stay in school longer or additional students to seek higher education," Krueger said. "There's also been a trend taking place where the more recent cohorts are larger - just because of the echo of the baby boom. You have an increase in the number of students who are college-age."

In Westport, Conn., Staples High School saw this year's senior class rise to a record number of 471 students, up from 386 students in the class of 2010.

"Another important factor is the Common Application form, which has made it less costly to apply to a larger number of schools," he added.

Addressing the increase from the schools' point of view, Eric Hoover, senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, noted that the technology allows for colleges to recruit more heavily online.

"As recruitment has gone digital, the Web has reduced the cost and the hassles of the traditional recruit outreach," said Hoover. "It's making it easier for the colleges to reach out to students all over the country and the world."

One of the highest increases occurred at Columbia University, in New York City, whose applicant pool rose by 32 percent from last year, totaling 34,587 applications. Columbia attributes its membership in the Common Application as one of the key factors to this year's rise.

Record Number of Common Applications

The Common Application, an online program that allows students to use one application form to apply to multiple colleges, reported they had processed a new record of more than 2.3 million applications as of March 15. The application system expects that its 414 member colleges will receive another 64,000 applications before the end of the academic year.

"There were about 20 percent more kids using our system this year, and there were 20 percent more applications submitted this year," Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application, told ABCNews.com.

"Ten years ago, students were applying to five schools, and this year it will be 10 schools," Kelly Herrington, director of college counseling at University Prep, in Seattle, told ABCNews.com. Prior to working at the private high school in Seattle, Herrington served as an associate director of admissions and director of international admissions at Union College, in Schenectady, N.Y.

Are Colleges Trying to Appear More Selective?

"If you broaden your pool of applications, you have more students to choose from and more in the mix - then you can be more strategic about enrolling a class that is, quote, 'better' by a number of measures," Hoover told ABCNews.com.

In an effort to attract more applicants, some schools offer "snap applications" – with fees waived and a school-specific essay not always required.

Rob Curran, a senior from Wenham, Mass., initially did not expect to apply to the University of Vermont.

"I didn't plan on applying there until they waived the fee, and I think that's the biggest part," Curran, 18, noted. Ultimately, Curran decided to attend Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., this fall.

A number of schools, Hoover explained, will offer snap, or fast, applications to their entire prospect pool, while others target different kinds of students from various regions, as well as score ranges.

"There's a payoff to broadening the applicant pool," Hoover said. "Fast applications make it easier to apply and the fact of the matter is – they work! The question is, How solid are these applications from students who are attracted primarily because of the swiftness and the ease of the fast snap applications?"

Through working with high school students, Kelly Herrington has seen an increase in recruitment on the part of colleges.

"Colleges are marketing students in their sophomore year in high school," said Herrington, "and they're reaching out to students who aren't in the ballpark of being accepted for the sole reason for increasing their application numbers."

More Early Applications

Another way schools are seeing an increase in college applications appears to be the proliferation of "early" applications.

Applying "early decision" is a binding application that ensures a student will enroll if accepted. Applying "early action" gives students an earlier notification letter than applying "regular decision."

Jacquie Serafino, director of college counseling at the Dana Hall School, an independent school for girls in Wellesley, Mass., explained that applying earlier is becoming a craze among high school students.

"In the past two years, maybe 60 percent of the senior class [at Dana Hall] would submit an early application somewhere," said Serafino. "This year, it was over 80 percent."

Through January 15, the Common Application reports that more than 38 percent of students using the online service applied "early action," totaling over 188,000 students. More than 68,000 students also applied to a school with a binding "early decision" application.

Meghan Farley, co-director of college counseling at the Pingree School, in South Hamilton, Mass., explained that applying early can calm students' nerves during the college process.

"They want to find out early that they have a home to go to, even if it's not their top choice," Farley said. "Why not apply in October or November and find out in December or January that at least you're accepted somewhere?"

ABCNews.com contributor Clay LePard is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau at Syracuse University.