High school senior Sabeer Narula was thrilled when he got his acceptance letter from Boston University this spring. Then he turned to the second page, and disappointment hit: He wouldn’t be allowed to show up on campus or start classes until January, a full semester behind most other entering freshmen.
Narula, 18, had been admitted into BU’s little-known, but rapidly expanding, January admissions program that starts students in the winter, instead of the traditional fall entrance.
“It was a surprise. I actually didn’t know the program existed,” said Narula, who lives in the San Francisco area and eventually accepted BU’s deferred admissions offer after weeks of research and debate with his family. “I’m very excited to get to college. I just wish I could start a little earlier.”
In the world of college admissions, delayed admissions programs can be bittersweet. For many, March congratulations letters now come with an asterisk, requiring an increasing number of students to wait a semester, or even a year, before starting college, or spend the fall abroad or on a different college’s campus.
Deferred admissions programs offer colleges a way to maximize the number of students it can admit, without dragging down the statistics about their incoming class.
Colleges are able to fill beds that empty out in the spring as upperclassmen go abroad, graduate early, or transfer out. The freshmen who come in likely wouldn’t have been accepted for the traditional freshman class because their grades weren’t as strong, but they are usually wealthier and can afford to pay for a spot without relying on financial aid from the school. And since colleges only report the high school grades and admissions tests scores for freshmen who enter in the fall, spring students aren’t counted in the rankings guides.
But students and some college counselors say spring admissions programs don’t always benefit students, who may struggle to make friends because they arrive on campus later and have fewer choices of where to live. They may have to take on extra courses to graduate on time, and could ultimately end up paying more.
“I’m seeing it more than ever,” said Nancy Federspiel, an independent college consultant from Bolton. Federspiel said she worked with five students who received such delayed admissions offers this cycle from colleges. A few years ago, one or two offers with such caveats would have been unusual, she said.
“It’s a good thing for some kids — it allows them to get in when they wouldn’t have gotten in otherwise,” she said. “But it depends on the students. I am worried, if they’re shy. It complicates it.”
Recent data on the number of colleges that offer deferred admissions programs is unavailable. A 2015 survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that about 12 percent of institutions offered both fall and deferred admissions programs.
Several schools, from Ivy League institutions to state universities, have adopted or expanded their delayed admissions programs in recent years.
Harvard University’s Z list may be the most notable delayed admissions program. According to documents revealed during last year’s trial of Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policy, the college offers about 60 students every year a way into the Ivy League campus through the Z list. The students, who are mostly white and well connected, are required to defer the start of college for a year.
Northeastern University sends more than 1,000 first-year students in its “N.U.in Program” to Greece, Australia, and England, among other countries, in the fall semester before they arrive on campus in January.
BU launched its January admissions program, where students start in the winter and then go to London in the summer to catch up on credits, in 2014 with just 80 freshmen but expects 600 students to enroll in 2020. Babson College estimates that it will admit at least 60 freshmen for the January start, up from the 50 that it has traditionally enrolled in the winter. The University of Delaware a few years ago started funneling 50 students to American University’s campus in Washington, D.C., in the fall to take some courses and do an internship before they were formally enrolled in the state’s university system the next semester.
University officials argue that staggering admissions ensures that beds are filled year-round and enables them to meet what they say is surging interest in their institutions. It also keeps families who are tied to donors or alumni happy and admits students who generally require little in the way of scholarships or financial aid.
Delayed admissions can also give colleges a leg up in the all-important rankings. Many of the students targeted for delayed admissions would have traditionally been wait listed or rejected because their test scores or grades may not have been as strong as other applicants. But since these students aren’t counted as part of the entering fall class, their academic histories don’t weigh down the school’s overall average for that particular year.
“The college banks on the fact that the student wants to go there,” said Todd Weaver, a vice president with Strategies for College Inc., a Norwood-based private counseling firm. “This student might not be a best fit, but their bank account is.”
Renata Nyul, a spokeswoman for Northeastern University, said staggering admissions allows the campus to accommodate as many students as possible, and with 62,000 applications for 2,800 first-year spots, the competition is fierce.
“Different schools have different motivations. At Northeastern, it’s largely about accommodating sky-high demand,” Nyul said in a statement. The university is able to “meet the combination of overwhelming demand and limited residential and classroom space.”
The students admitted in N.U.in are similar to traditional fall enrollees, Nyul said. Northeastern’s incoming fall class has an average combined SAT score of 1,459 and grade point average of 4.20, while N.U.in students have an average SAT score of 1,418 and average GPA of over 4.0.
Douglas Zander, executive director of admissions for the University of Delaware, acknowledged that the experience isn’t for every student. Families must be able to bear more of the costs, because the university offers less financial aid to these students. Students interested in science who have to take laboratory classes would also find it harder to finish on time if they spend their first fall semester in Washington, D.C., he said.
“We feel like it’s been pretty successful,” Zander said. “We have strong retention rates. The program works really well for the students who want to come to the University of Delaware.”
Delaying enrollment for a semester can help students who may want a break between high school and college, either to work or pursue other interests, said Courtney Minden, the dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at Babson.
Ultimately, colleges have to explore ways to increase their enrollment and bring more students to campus to bolster their finances, Minden said.
“This was seen as an opportunity,” she said. “It was an unconventional way to utilize the campus.”
Students are interested, Minden said. Babson offered spring admissions to about 100 students this year and 86 have signed up for it, even though the college only initially planned for 60. Minden said she is trying to figure out how to accommodate all of them.
“This will not make my [chief financial officer] upset,” Minden said.
These spring admissions programs can offer students new opportunities. Looking back, Eve Korte, a 2017 Northeastern graduate who spent her first semester of college in Greece, said the experience boosted her confidence. She climbed Mount Olympus, learned some Greek, and planned her own independent travel to Istanbul and London.
But arriving on Northeastern’s campus in January was initially isolating, she said. She was in a dorm room by herself surrounded by international students. Boston was snowed in for the first few months and it was hard to meet other first-year students.
“It was a little harder to find your place socially and meet people,” Korte said. “You have all these experiences that are valuable, but the trade-off being you don’t have a normal college experience.”