College Applicants Reconsider the Value of Elite Universities

College applicants have always faced a higher education crap shoot. The fickle calculus that transforms their GPA's, extracurricular activities, and SAT/ACT/TOEFL scores into acceptance or rejection letters is the annual bane of many a high school senior's existence. Now college admissions officers face the same trysts with fate as the recession comes to the quad.

Colleges and universities, especially those in the high tuition bracket, face a particularly dicey gamble in deciding how many students to accept, or reject, for their 2009 freshman classes. With the economy worsening, many admissions officers fear a yes to an offer this spring will turn into a no this summer.

Families are already signaling that schools once a financial reach—but still worth it—are no longer on the list. To deal with the uncertainty, schools are offering a record number of early acceptance spots to lock students in and sweetening their financial aid deals with creative scholarship packages.

Students may also be taking the long view in their higher education considerations. With some experts saying the job prospects for college graduates are worst in a generation and are likely to stay that way for some time, students may be looking at their 2013 balance sheets and seeing no way to pay back college loans with the jobs that will be afforded to them.

However the college game plays out this year, the recession could foretell a historic leveling of educational opportunity in the United States. As wealthy families rethink the wisdom of sinking $120,000 into undergraduate education, their super-achieving (and not-so-super-achieving) children are starting to compete with the rest of the world for spots at the lesser Ivy's and well-regarded state schools where the curricula have perennially been on par with elite institutions. Could this mark the closing of the achievement gap among American students? We'll have a clearer picture on that in about seven months.

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