updated 4/4/2008 6:41:48 PM ET 2008-04-04T22:41:48

Another year of record-breaking competition for slots at elite colleges is over. Now it's time for the colleges to sweat.

Continuing a long-term trend, the acceptance rate at many of the country's most selective colleges inched down this year to ever-more agonizing levels for parents and students. Harvard (7.1 percent), Yale (8.3 percent) and Stanford (9.5 percent) were among the growing number of schools where more than nine in 10 applicants are denied. Middlebury (18 percent) and Duke (19 percent) are among the many others reporting record selectivity.

But now, the pressure switches to colleges, who generally give students a month after April 1 admissions notifications to make up their minds whether to attend.

If colleges admit too few students, they can end up with empty spaces. Too many, and they could get stuck housing extra freshmen in trailers on the quad.

This year, it's a bigger guessing game than ever. The decisions by Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia to eliminate early admissions this year forced those schools to tear up decades-old models that allowed them to accurately estimate how many students who were admitted would actually come — decisions that trickle down to other schools.

Dangling more financial aid
Meanwhile, several dozen colleges, among them Harvard, Dartmouth, Swarthmore and Tufts, announced expansions of financial aid in recent months. Nobody knows exactly what effect that will have on students' choices.

"From an admissions perspective, it's been quite a chaotic year," said David Hawkins, director of public and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "The story of the year seems to be the continued and even increasing uncertainty that faced both students and colleges."

Students who have just endured the process probably won't mind seeing the tables turned when it comes to anxiety.

"I can tell you we modeled in mathematically, spiritually, humanistically — in a million ways — and nobody knows (how many will come)," said William Fitzsimmons, a one-time statistics teacher and now dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard.

Added John Blackburn, Fitzsimmons' counterpart at Virginia: "It's been scary, no 'ifs,' 'ands' or 'buts.'"

A feeding frenzy
It's scary for both sides — the schools and students' families. With a population bubble increasing the number of teenagers, elite colleges can seem incredibly difficult to crack.

Among other colleges releasing numbers this week, Princeton admitted a record-low 9.3 percent of applicants, Columbia 10 percent, Penn 16 percent, Boston College 26 percent and Virginia, which is state-supported, 38 percent.

Still, that's not quite the full story. Nationally, the average acceptance rate for colleges is roughly 70 percent — about what it was 20 years ago.

What's really changed is that more colleges are recruiting all over the country, and more students are applying to a large number of schools.

The trend feeds on itself. Students apply to more schools, each school gets more applications, and the admissions rate goes down. Students get scared, so they apply to more schools. And the cycle continues. But while it means good students are more likely to get rejected by at least some upper-tier schools, they are getting more acceptance letters, too.

A good problem to have
The admissions dean with the biggest headache this month isn't complaining one bit. Christopher Gruber of Davidson College had already finished selecting his class late last month, when suddenly his tiny school of 1,700 went on a spectacular run of upsets through the NCAA men's basketball tournament, falling just short of this weekend's Final Four.

Now he's wondering if the wave of national publicity will force Davidson's dormitories, classrooms and cafeterias to accommodate a much larger-than-expected number of admitted students next fall.

"The current joke is, 'Chris, how many spare bedrooms do you have at your house?'" Gruber said. But it's a good problem to have.

"It doesn't get any better," he said. "People saw us in a good light."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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