Part of the shakeup Inzer foresees may be coming soon for admission offices. The surge in the number of high school graduates that began in the early 1990s reached its peak this year and will begin a slow, steady decline through much of the next decade. And a more detailed look at the demographic data indicates that the anxiety now felt by many high school students is about to shift to the colleges that court them. Declines in the high school graduation rate will be especially precipitous in the Northeast and Midwest and among white and more affluent high school graduates. Traditionally, these are populations from which many liberal arts colleges, including Hamilton, have drawn significant numbers of students. Conversely, the number of high school graduates is expected to grow in the South and the West, and especially among Hispanics and Asians.
Many colleges have been preparing for these demographic shifts for years, focusing recruiting efforts in areas of the country where the population is increasing and ensuring that campus programs are in place that are attractive to a more geographically, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse student body. At Hamilton, for example, several steps taken in recent years help ensure the College remains accessible to low- and moderate-income families. These include growing the financial aid budget, reallocating merit aid dollars to need-based scholarship aid and lowering the average indebtedness of our graduates. "Hamilton has always been a school of opportunity," Inzer says, "and it's important to us that we protect that legacy."
"We're going back to a period of diminishing numbers," says Schilder, who recalls the days in the late '80s and early '90s when the apprehension families currently feel "was on this side of the desk." But the mission, she says, will remain the same: Treat students and their families individually and with respect, and bring in the most qualified class possible.
When that class has been chosen each spring and the letters are mailed informing applicants of the Committee on Admission's decision, the questions start from parents, guidance counselors, alumni volunteers and even some admission officers bothered that a favorite candidate did not get in. "Can you tell me why we didn't admit this student?" they ask the dean. "I can't figure it out." Hamilton's increased selectivity and the growing pains that come with it have only exacerbated the problem.
"Rarely can I point to a C in calculus the senior year or anything specific," Inzer says. "Most of our applicants are great students, and that's what makes this job so satisfying — and so frustrating. Usually, when the decision doesn't go the applicant's way, it has nothing to do with the student and everything to do with our overall pool and how we're trying to sculpt the class for what our community might need in any given year. We end up turning down hundreds and hundreds of qualified candidates, and it's never easy doing that."
But the system still works in most cases, and every admission officer has a story that proves the point. Wendy Schmidt '05 remembers a student with whom she connected and for whom she advocated in committee, but when acceptance letters were mailed in late March, the student learned she was on the wait list. Undeterred, the student stayed in contact with Schmidt. When a spot opened up, Schmidt had the pleasure of making the phone call to tell the student she was being offered admission. "She cried on the phone," Schmidt recalls, "and several days letter I received a bouquet of flowers with the message 'Thank you for believing in me.'" Schmidt keeps the card on her desk as a reminder of why she loves her work. "It still makes my day," she says.
For Inzer and her colleagues, such stories make the difficult decisions worth the struggle. "We never forget what an honor and privilege it is to admit Hamilton's future," Inzer says, "and how lucky we are to review applications from the best students in the country and around the world. It's hard not to be able to admit them all."