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Editorial: Dartmouth Applications Fall, but Why?

We doubt that Dartmouth College officials are pushing the panic button about a sharp drop in applications for admission this year. After all, 19,235 applicants for 1,100 or so spots in the Class of 2018 is still a lot, and the college could probably fill two or three freshmen classes of that size with highly intelligent, highly talented young men and women who would do credit to the institution.

At the same time, there’s ample reason to be concerned. Applications declined for the second year in a row after rising steadily through the previous decade, Bloomberg News reports. This year’s decline was the biggest in 21 years, and it comes as some of the college’s peer institutions — Princeton, Yale, Brown and Penn — reported attracting bigger pools of applicants, while Harvard reported a 2.1 percent drop.

And it coincides with high-profile turmoil at Dartmouth involving hazing, binge drinking, gender-based discrimination and sexual assault on campus. First Rolling Stone published an expose in 2012 on fraternity culture (or lack thereof); then a student protest against homophobia, racism and sex assault disrupted an event for prospective students last spring and was followed by an online verbal assault on the protesters; then a group of students filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging failure to comply with reporting requirements regarding sexual assault on campus; and finally the federal government opened an investigation into possible violations of Title IX, which bars sex-based discrimination.

It is notable that the college did not mention that issue in announcing the applications decline in a press release that accentuated the positive: Those who did apply represented “the most accomplished and most diverse” applicant pool in the college’s history. It also focused on possible demographic factors that might be implicated — fewer high school graduates going to college nationally and those who do staying closer to home.

Indeed all sorts of reasons might be at work. Maybe the $60,200-a-year price tag at Dartmouth has gotten too rich even for the rich, much less a hard-pressed middle class for whom scholarship aid goes only so far when measured against other family priorities; maybe the fact that the college will no longer accept high-school Advanced Placement courses as credit toward graduation had a depressing effect; perhaps this era of economic insecurity has more potential students and their families thinking about the vocational value of a college degree.

In any case, spokesman Tommy Bruce said that the college is taking the decline seriously and investigating the causes, including undertaking a survey of non-applicants to determine why they did not apply.

It’s certainly appropriate for college administrators not to jump to conclusions. But we hope that they bear in mind that reputational damage is not always readily observed or easily quantifiable. Good reputations take a long time to build, and when they take a hit, it often takes a while for the damage to manifest itself. Almost everyone can think of a business or a product whose reputation for quality has lived on long after it no longer obtained. The other side of the ledger is that once the damage has been done, it becomes doubly hard to rebuild that reputation. So the quicker the college moves ahead with its previously announced initiatives to improve social life on campus for all students, the sooner it can begin getting the word out that it’s a place where all are welcome — from each according to her abilities, to each according to his needs.