When high-school senior Maxine Wally got rejected from Northwestern University last month, she lay down on her mother's bed and cried. She thought she had a good shot. Wally consistently took the toughest classes she could fit into her schedule, and her grade point average puts her near the top of the class at her well-regarded public high school in Berkeley, Calif. After months of researching Northwestern on the Web and grilling friends, teachers and advisers who had gone there, Maxine pinned her hopes on getting accepted. For students like Maxine who are applying to college for next fall, that dream is turning out to be frustratingly unobtainable. It turns out the odds of getting into a selective college have never been worse. Why? It's simple demographics. A little less than two decades ago the biggest population bulge in the history of America, the baby boomers, were busy having kids. Now those kids are in junior high school and high school and creating a demographic boomlet all their own. This spring the largest number of high-school graduates in the history of the countrysome 3.32 millionwill don a cap and gown, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Next year, at the peak of the peak, the number of high-school graduates is expected to top 3.33 million. "For many middle- and upper-middle-class kids, the transition from high school to college was never without some obvious stress," says Barmak Nassirian, spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "But now it has become a multiyear nightmare." Last year about three-quarters of four-year colleges and universities reported an increase in the number of applications from the previous year. This year applications are pouring in again. Flagship state schools, like the University of Texas at Austin, where the number of students applying has jumped from 14,982 to 27,237 in the last 10 years, are turning away more kids than they want to. "The positive side is that we get to be more selective," says Gary Lavergne, UT's director of admission research. "But when you see a kid collapse with grief because they didn't get in, well, that's not fun."
Getting In Gets Harder