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Dartmouth Applications Down 14%

Applications to Dartmouth College dropped 14 percent after a student outcry over sexual harassment and reports of fraternity hazing last year led its new president to try to improve campus life.

Dartmouth said it would begin a study of the applications decrease, which was deeper than a 2.1 percent drop-off reported by Harvard University last week.

“While we are thrilled to have another exceptionally strong pool of potential students, we take the decline in applications seriously and are investigating the causes,” Tommy Bruce, a spokesman said in a Feb. 7 statement.

Applications for the Class of 2018 fell to 19,235, the biggest decline in 21 years, said Justin Anderson, a Dartmouth spokesman. School officials have long failed to acknowledge the impact of sexual assault and harassment on campus, said Peter Hackett, a theater professor and a member of Dartmouth Change, a group of faculty, students and alumni pressing for action on these issues. In Monday’s applications report, the administration made no mention of the campus environment or reports about it, he said.

“Dartmouth Change said to them that if they didn’t handle the problem, the problem would handle them, and I’m afraid this is what’s happening,” Hackett said in a telephone interview.

Dartmouth has a history of turmoil over race, gender and campus culture. Students and faculty have protested the prominence of its fraternities, which they have said foster binge drinking, violent hazing and sexual assault.

A group of students filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department last year against Dartmouth, alleging that it fails to report campus violence as required by the federal Clery Act. Later, the department began its own investigation of Dartmouth for possible violations of Title IX, the law that bars gender-based discrimination on campus. Inadequate response to sexual assault is a violation.

Philip Hanlon, an alumnus who became its president last year after serving as provost at the University of Michigan, has said he’s committed to making the school a leader in improving campus life. The college has centralized resources for victims of sexual assault and is adding a residence hall for lesbian, gay and transgender students, while the Greek system on campus has created an inter-fraternity network on sexual assault.

Any effort to change the campus environment at Dartmouth has to start with an examination of the school’s Greek system, in which about two-thirds of sophomores, juniors and seniors are involved, said Susan Struble, a 1993 graduate who is also a member of Dartmouth Change. Hanlon, a former member of Dartmouth’s Alpha Delta fraternity, has said he believes the organizations contribute to college life.

“Some might be quick to point to our location, or the public debates about affordability and the quality of student life that affect many college campuses, including our own,” Bruce, the college spokesman, said in the statement. “The fact, however, is that there are broader issues, from demographics to the rising popularity of pre-professional programs in the wake of the financial crisis, that may be playing a substantial role.”

Applications fell from a peak of 23,110 two years ago, after steadily rising through the past decade. Dartmouth said this year’s pool was more diverse, with students of color accounting for 37 percent, while about 70 percent of all applicants said they would need financial aid. The school also said applicants had the highest average SAT and ACT test scores ever and that 80 percent of them were in the top 10 percent of their high school classes.

Beginning with the Class of 2018, Dartmouth will no longer accept high-school Advanced Placement courses as credit toward graduation. Since a number of potential Dartmouth applicants probably took these courses, some of them would be discouraged by the change, said Jack Maguire, founder of Maguire Associates, an enrollment management consultant in Concord, Mass.

“That could have a profound impact” on application numbers, Maguire said.

The number of U.S. high school graduates began to fall with the Class of 2012, according to a report last year by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. Dartmouth said it received 20 percent fewer applicants from the Midwest, 15 percent fewer from the Northeast and 20 percent fewer from international applicants. Harvard also cited a drop in applications from the Midwest and Northeast.

“About 80 percent of college freshmen attend college within 200 miles of their home, and 90 percent remain within 500 miles,” Dartmouth said in the statement. “Given that New England is losing college-bound population, this suggests that the application numbers may be a result of broader trends.”

Princeton, Yale and Brown universities and the University of Pennsylvania saw increases in applications, with Penn reporting a 14 percent gain. Columbia and Cornell universities have yet to release data.

Dartmouth canceled classes one day last April after some students were targeted by online threats following a protest against homophobia, sexual assault and racism disrupted an on- campus event. In place of the classes, the college held speeches and teach-ins designed to foster debate that promotes respect and civil discourse.

While protests and meetings have been plentiful, the campus environment and its reputation remain issues that must be addressed, said Andrew Longhi, a senior and editor of the Dartmouth Law Journal, an undergraduate publication.

“This is something that reaches far outside Dartmouth and affects the kind of students we’re attracting,” he said in a telephone interview.