Katie Dahl is a math whiz at Minneapolis' Washburn High School. She now spends her time taking classes for college credit at the University of Minnesota. It's her familiarity with that school's Twin Cities campus that ruled it out.
"I've been going to U of M for summer camps and all that for years and years and years so it seems like it would be a little silly to stay this close to home," Dahl said.
Dahl has visited Harvard and MIT. She's been accepted to a half-dozen universities, including the University of Minnesota. She's looking for an urban environment, a solid engineering program and tuition that won't deplete her college savings and pile up student loans. She's decided she wants to spread her wings -- but not too much.
"I've lived in Minneapolis all my life," she said. "I want to go out and see something new, even if it is just Iowa."
The stately state school just south of the border in Ames, Iowa, is currently her first pick. It ranks high in the number of patents, something that appeals to Dahl's interest in materials science engineering, and it offsets out of state tuition for Minnesota students. But there's one other thing she likes -- something that might best be described as customer service.
"They've been extremely helpful," Dahl said. "They got back to me within a week. And it was with the scholarship already there."
Dahl complains many of the schools she was ultimately accepted to ignored her for weeks, neglecting to answer emails and phone calls.
Iowa State is a little smaller than she wants. But, unless a much more attractive offer arrives, she'll be heading down Interstate 35 this fall.
A Washburn High classmate of Dahl's takes a different path to her decision. Like Dahl, Liz Shay wants to venture out on her own, but not too far. Shay is hoping to balance her academics with athletics.
"If they gave me the ability to play or not, that was a lot," Shay said. "And just the school--the feel when I got there."
Like most students, Shay has applied to more than a half dozen colleges. She's also passed up the University of Minnesota for something smaller, more personal.
"Size is a big deal," she said. "I just like the idea of a smaller classroom versus big. More of a personal feel to it. Knowing the teachers, just because at Washburn that's how it is."
For Shay, size and atmosphere clicked at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. She filled out an application within an hour of returning from a campus visit. The deal was practically sealed after she received a message from the basketball coach--the only college official to bother sending a handwritten note. The only problem, says Shay's mother Linda, is Gustavus' annual tuition, which is three times that of her next choice, the University of Minnesota-Morris.
"The biggest worry I have about the process is the funding," Linda Shay said. "We have to determine what we can support her with and what she'll get for scholarships. But it is a worry."
Like most families of college bound high schoolers, the Shays are waiting for word from the individual institutions and state and federal agencies about any scholarships or other financial aid. Still, both Linda and her husband, David, say they don't want cost to be the only consideration. "An education, once you've gone past it, you really don't get it back," David Shay said. "So you either get it or you don't."
An education, once you've gone past it, you really don't get it back.David Shay
The Shays are holding out on a decision until they have all the factors, including financial aid, included.
The number of applications from college bound seniors like Liz Shay has soared in recent years nationwide, and not just because there are more students.
The trend is similar at Minnesota institutions, such as Saint Cloud State University, where there are three times as many applications as incoming freshmen. One reason, said Saint Cloud Associate Director of Admissions John Brown, is students now apply to many more schools--10, 11 or sometimes more. At the same time, institutions are also competing for students who are zeroing in on their options earlier and earlier.
"Many of those students have mentioned that it was in their sophomore year that they made their initial inquiry about that school and that's when they kind of plugged them in as one of their final choices," Shay said.
Colleges hope to nail down a decision by students -- one way or the other--by May 1.