Unexplained Rise in Applications to UT

The University of Tennessee is seeing a significant jump in applications, but it's not exactly clear why.

Several factors probably have sparked a 17 percent hike in applications so far this year, including the economy, an easier application process and more scholarship funding.

As of Monday, 8,694 students had applied to UT's flagship campus, up from 7,408 last year, says Richard Bayer, dean of admissions. So far, 6,120 students have been admitted, he says. Others have been deferred until mid-March when a final determination will be made.

UT aims for freshman enrollment around 3,800. "You have to admit more than 3,800, because not everybody is going to come," Bayer says. "You admit students you think will succeed here."

(Total undergrad enrollment is just over 20,000—not 15,200, as would be calculated by multiplying 3,800 by four. The higher number is the result of many students taking longer than four years to graduate. Part-time and transfer students also push enrollment up.)

While it's impossible to know for certain why there's been such a big jump in interest in UT, Bayer says he suspects several factors.

Prior to 2000, any applicant from Tennessee who had a certain grade-point average and ACT score was automatically admitted, Bayer says. But starting in 2000, that guarantee no longer stood. In the first year those new standards were applied, UT saw a drop in applications. "Students were under the impression we were using a much higher standard, so students self-selected themselves out," Bayer says. "This fall, I think everybody understands it a little better."

In addition, the application process was made easier. It can now be done online, and essay questions previously required have now been made optional. "We give the students an opportunity to say why the University of Tennessee should accept them. We don't believe every student needs to point that out to us," he says.

This year there is also more scholarship money available, especially to African-American students. A new grant program—which grew out of a 1968 lawsuit's recent settlement—will provide $2,500 a year to about 100 black students.

Bayer suspects that the sluggish economy, and perhaps the attacks of September 11, are leading more Tennessee students to apply here as well. "I'm just guessing at those two," he says.

The application jump is not limited to UT. Mike Pitts, undergraduate admissions director at East Tennessee State University, says applications for next fall are up 18 percent from this point last year. As of Feb. 6, 2,116 students had applied. Pitts says college enrollment typically climbs during economic downturns. "Plus, in general the numbers are up in our state with regards to college-age students," he says.

About two-thirds of applicants to UT in Knoxville are in-state, as are 80 percent of enrollees, Bayer says. Whether this year's increase turns out to be an anomaly or a trend toward higher applications, for next year at least, it will likely mean a freshman class with slightly better grades. ACT scores are averaging about 25.3 among admitted students, up from last year's 25.0. Average GPAs are also up slightly, Bayer says.

"The better class you enroll, the more likely they're going to exceed," he says. "That translates to good students, good retention rate, and good graduation rates."

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