Brendan Perry, a senior at South Pasadena High School, is debating which college to attend. And the six that just admitted him are not making it any easier.
They're bombarding him with email, party invitations and chat room entreaties, urging him to accept their offers for a spot in the graduating class of 2015. The wooing, an annual role reversal as schools pursue their accepted students, is complicating Perry's decision even as he winnows his list to two finalists: UCLA and Notre Dame.
"It makes you think about that school again," he said.
And that is the goal of colleges and universities as they court admitted students ever more aggressively in the weeks before the May 1 commitment deadline. Fueled in part by recession-linked money worries, colleges are trying harder than ever to close enrollment deals with students who applied on average to many more schools than did previous generations.
The final choice is often not easy for students and parents. Financial aid, family pressures, academic prestige, campus locations, climates and sports teams all play a role. And now so does the heightened recruiting from schools, in person and on social media.
Perry, 17, attended UCLA events for accepted students. He also awaits financial aid details from Notre Dame before a possible trip to see how the Indiana campus stacks up to its promotional DVD.
"The choice does change the path of the rest of your life, without a doubt," said Perry, who is considering majoring in environmental science. "Hopefully it's a good option, but you don't know for sure."
For Olivia McNamara, 18, of Tampa, Fla., the choice is more complicated. She applied to 15 colleges, was accepted by 11 and is focusing on five: the University of Florida, which would be nearly free because of a state scholarship; Tulane, which offered substantial financial aid; USC, New York University and Boston College. A competitive figure skater who is interested in international relations, she plans trips to USC and to Tulane in New Orleans.
McNamara feels "extremely confused" but says she and her parents will choose carefully. "It won't be a flip of a coin," she said.
Her mother, Linda, a federal prosecutor, said families have much to consider. "You are trying to figure who your teenager is, and she is trying to figure out who she is. And we are all trying to figure out how she fits into the pictures of these schools," she said, adding that all the marketing brochures add pressure.
Colleges also are anxious these days, partly because the recession has made many families wary of high tuition, experts say.
In addition, as students applied and were admitted to more schools, the yield — the percentage of accepted students who enroll — dipped in the last decade, from 48% to 43% for public universities and from 40% to 35% for private, not-for-profit schools, according to the National Assn. for College Admission Counseling.
So to fill dorm beds and classrooms this fall, colleges are spending more to woo students in April, especially boosting social media usage, said David Hawkins, the group's director for public policy and research.
Many schools are expanding Facebook pages this year as a way for accepted students to form online friendships and, the colleges hope, foster a sense of community that will lead to enrollment.
But in-person recruiting remains strong.
USC admitted about 23% of its freshman applicants and expects about 35% of those to enroll. The university is among many schools that have stepped up yield efforts this year with increased phone calls, mailings and emails targeting specific majors. USC also has receptions on campus and across California and the nation.
Last week, USC admission dean Timothy Brunold welcomed 300 admitted students and relatives to a lunch reception, complete with a trumpet-blasting performance by the Trojan marching band. He told the students that the tables were now turned.
"For months and months, colleges, USC included, have left you waiting to know if you were going to be admitted," he said. "Now, believe me, we are counting the days until we find out if you are going to choose us."
The University of Pennsylvania, a private Ivy League campus, admits just 12% of its applicants and about 63% of those typically enroll, admissions dean Eric Furda said. The school sponsors a website and Facebook page and hosts events on campus and around the country. Furda said he senses that more enrollment decisions these days are made in the final hours because students have more choices.
Public universities are in the race as well, especially for out-of-state students who pay higher tuition. UC Santa Barbara, for instance, which generally has a yield of about 20%, this year is holding out-of-state receptions for the first time, visiting Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York. "We want them to pick the place that's best for them, but we want to be sure they know what we have to offer," said admissions director Christine Van Gieson.
Although some students enjoy being wooed, the effect of such efforts is uncertain.
Andre Cousineau, 18, a senior at Eagle Rock High, said he has not been swayed by emails and invitations from the nine schools that admitted him. More important, he said, he is weighing financial aid and costs at his four finalists: Santa Clara University, UC Santa Barbara, UC Riverside and Vassar College in New York. Another factor is where he will be able to play competitive soccer. "It's a really tough decision. The financial aid package is important, but you have to look at other opportunities as well," he said.
Jack and Zachary Weinstock, 18-year-old twins from Valley Stream, N.Y., are leaning toward the State University of New York at Binghamton, an academically strong campus where costs would be much less than at private schools, even those that offered large scholarships.
Their mother, Wendy Weinstock, advises other families not to be swayed by pretty websites. "Don't think that higher education is something more noble than it really is. It's a business that spends a lot of money on marketing and decals," she said. "You can't really get sucked into all of that and pulled away from the right choices for your student and your family."