Recession adds pressure to college application choices

Raleigh — Record numbers of admissions applications and pools of unusually strong candidates might sound like a dream for admissions directors at the 16 schools in the state university system.

Instead, they are sweating as they ponder the main wave of candidates for the next freshman class. The sour economy that brought such a bounty of applicants has made this a season of uncertainty for admissions directors, who thrive on solid historical data and safe statistical bets.

They simply don't have data for an economy like this, and many fear that their finely tuned systems for predicting how many students will actually enroll may be out of whack. And with schools slashing budgets and dropping instructors, an unexpectedly oversize incoming class is the last thing they need.

"You're seeing this increase in the number of applications and in the quality of the applicants, and you're smiling – but it's a nervous smile," said Anthony Britt, admissions director at East Carolina University.

His university has notched nearly 18,000 applicants for the freshman class, up almost 14 percent from last year. The system's two largest universities, N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill, have received record numbers of applications. NCSU has topped 18,000 for the first time, nearly 1,000 more than it had by this point last year, and hundreds more are expected. UNC-CH, meanwhile, has more than 23,000 applications, 7 percent above the final tally last year.

Many admissions directors think more North Carolina residents might accept admission offers because of tempting in-state tuition. But from there, questions remain: How many students will show up next fall who in prosperous times might have picked an expensive out-of-state or private school? How many others will say yes, they are coming and send in a deposit, then enroll at a less expensive community college?

"We certainly want to enroll enough, but not way too many," said Thomas H. Griffin, director of undergraduate admissions at NCSU. "Classes are going to be hard enough to find as it is."

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