Getting into the University of Pennsylvania and other elite private schools in the area could be harder this fall, with applications coming in at record increases.
Some of the rise is because of eye-popping increases in applications from California, where budget cuts have sent shock waves through the state system.
Also fueling the boom are more aggressive recruiting by colleges in the economic downturn, a jump in applications from minority students, and a boost in the number of students filing more applications to find the best financial-aid offers, officials say.
Penn's applications have risen 17 percent, to 26,800 for 2,400 spots - one of its largest jumps ever after two relatively flat years.
"We're going to be more selective, if not the most selective Penn has ever been," admissions dean Eric Furda said.
Admission to other private schools in the region also will be more competitive. Princeton University reports a 19 percent increase in applications, Drexel University 19 percent, Villanova University 10 percent, and Swarthmore College 8 percent.
While many students need look only across the classroom to see competition for coveted freshman slots, increasingly their rivals are hailing from farther away - the left coast in particular.
Penn got 3,350 applications from California, a 22 percent hike. Swarthmore was up 16 percent, Villanova 34 percent, and the University of Delaware 36 percent.
"An increase like we saw in California doesn't just happen," Furda said. "Families in California must be looking at the strain the state system is under and are starting to take a look at some other options outside the state."
California's well-regarded public system has lowered enrollments as money gets tighter and the number of high school graduates peaks.
"We really don't know what's going to happen to the UC system," said Margaret Amott, an independent college counselor in Sacramento, Calif. "Kids are finding they're having a hard time getting classes and not graduating in four years as they once were."
Applications to private schools are showing some record increases nationally as well, including an unheard of 42 percent at the University of Chicago, said Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers.
"You would have thought that economic conditions in the country would make higher-priced institutions a lot less interesting to families," he said, but "they understand that the recession, no matter how severe it may be, will end fairly soon, whereas the benefits of a college education are spread out over a lifetime."
Princeton plans to increase its financial-aid budget to $113 million next school year, up from $103 million.
"It appears our financial-aid message of affordability is reaching more students than in the past," dean of admissions Janet Rapelye said in a statement.
More applications from minority students also are fueling the spurt in applications locally, college officials said.
The numbers of black and Hispanic applicants to Penn are up 33 percent and 29 percent.
Applications from Asians rose 61 percent at Delaware, along with jumps in black and Hispanic applicants.
Villanova drew 3,200 applications from minority students, its highest total. And Pennsylvania State University had an 8 percent climb.
The increases are coming even as the number of U.S. high school graduates has begun to decline (despite continuing gains in the West and Southwest).
Villanova's applications rose even though its draw from Pennsylvania fell 4 percent.
Several area schools, including Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges, did not respond to requests for application numbers.
Officials also speculated that students were continuing to apply to more schools. In 1990, 9 percent of students applied to seven or more colleges. In 2006, 18 percent did so.
"They perhaps want to be able to have more financial-aid packages to sort through to see where they might be getting the most help," said Claudia Gard, a counselor at Masterman High School, a Philadelphia magnet school.
Masterman counselors recommend that students apply to state schools, if only as a backup to more selective colleges.
Senior Danielle Williams, 18, applied to two Ivies, Penn and Cornell University; two state-related schools, Penn State and Temple University; and East Stroudsburg University, part of the state system.
An honor-roll student with advanced math ability, she recently was named the Philadelphia School District's student of the month. Even so, she knows she faces stiff competition for top schools, and much of her decision will depend on financial aid.
"We kind of go in with the mind-set that we're not going to get in," Williams said of her Ivy applications. "So if we do get in, it's good news. . . . And even if I don't get in, I have really good backups."
Many state and state-related schools also saw application increases.
Rutgers University, New Jersey's flagship, is tracking 5 percent higher, which it attributed in part to the opening of its new visitors center.
Penn State was up 4 percent as of mid-January.
Delaware is ahead 7 percent, bringing in 25,247 applications. At the same time, it will offer admission to a smaller class.
"It's going to be an especially tough year," admissions director Louis Hirsh said.
But at Temple, applications dropped 11 percent, to 15,673, from a year ago. The school's deadline is March 1.
Applications from out-of-state students, who have to pay higher tuition, account for half the decline, said William Black, senior vice provost for enrollment management.
Also, counselors at feeder high schools in Philadelphia, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties told Temple that more students were planning to attend community college their first two years to save money, he said.
Temple figures it still may get applications from students who applied to private schools under early decision and early action and were turned down.
Despite the decline, Black said Temple had a strong candidate pool and expected it would bring in a better class than last year. Four percent more students have submitted deposits, indicating commitment to attend, he added.
"The SAT scores in this year's pool are up significantly - 18 points higher," he said.
At Penn, Furda - like officials at some other schools - also credited more aggressive recruiting. He said Penn's education campaign about its aid must be working, too.
But Furda said the size of the jump in applications surprised him.
"I was thinking a 10 percent increase would have been good," he said.