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Strategic Budget Advisory Committee (SBAC)
Strategic Budget Advisory Committee

Private Colleges Worry About a Dip in Enrollment

December 22, 2008

By Tamar Lewin - The New York Times

First came the good news for St. Olaf College: early-decision applications were way up this year.

Now comes the bad news: the number of regular applications is way down, about 30 percent fewer than at this time last year.

“To be quite honest, I don’t know how we’ll end up,” said Derek Gueldenzoph, dean of admissions at the college, in Northfield, Minn. “By this time last year, we had three-quarters of all our applications. The deadline’s Jan. 15. If what we’ve got now is three-quarters of what we’re going to get, we’re in big trouble. But if this turns out to be only half, we’ll be fine.”

Not all private colleges are reporting fewer applications this year. Even in the Midwest and Pennsylvania, where most colleges seem to have dwindling numbers, some are getting more applications than ever. Still, in a survey of 371 private institutions released last week by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, two-thirds said they were greatly concerned about preventing a decline in enrollment.

Getting exactly the right enrollment — always a tricky proposition — is especially crucial for small colleges with tuition-driven budgets. One case in point came last month, when Beloit College in Wisconsin announced it would eliminate about 40 positions because 36 fewer students than expected had enrolled. The college has about 1,300 students and gets three-quarters of its $55 million budget from tuition.

Admissions officers nationwide point to several possible reasons for the drop in applications. Some students have pared their college lists this year. Many more are looking at less-expensive state universities. Many institutions accepted more students under binding early-decision programs, and each such acceptance drains off an average of 8 to 10 regular-decision applications. And some experts suspect that students are delaying their college plans.

The deadline at most colleges is still a few weeks off, so a last-minute flood of applications could raise the numbers to last year’s level. But admissions officers say they are not counting on that.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I don’t remember a year when applications started out behind and didn’t end up behind,” said Steve Thomas, director of admissions at Colby College in Waterville, Me., where early-decision applications were higher than usual but regular applications are running about 14 percent behind.

At Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where early-decision applications were up, regular applications are down about 15 percent, said Gail Sweezey, the director of admissions.

“One thing that’s happened this year is that there’s all this talk, and one-sided media stories, about how private colleges are unaffordable,” Ms. Sweezey said. “It’s become almost viral that there’s no loans, that schools are having problems. The truth is that a lot of private colleges have more financial aid available this year, but there’s lots of misinformation out there. And my guidance counselor friends tell me students may be applying to fewer places and turning to their state university, which will be at capacity.”

If some private colleges are grappling with the specter of too few applications, public universities and community colleges are having the opposite problem — more students at a time when their state financing is being slashed.

In California and Florida, some public institutions have been forced to cap enrollment. And even in states like Pennsylvania, where the number of high school graduates is declining, applications to public universities are growing.

“We have 47,971 applications as of now, compared to 45,760 at this time last year,” said Anne Rohrbach, executive director of undergraduate admissions at Pennsylvania State University. “We’ve been making offers since October, and we’ve already had 1,638 students say yes, compared to 1,096 at this time last year.”

Generally, Ivy League universities with generous aid packages to low- and middle-income families have as many applicants as ever — and even more applying for financial aid.

“We had 27,462 applications last year, and we’ve been running almost exactly on last year’s pace,” said William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard College, which has eliminated early decision. “More students are applying for financial aid. It’s a significant increase, four full percentage points ahead of last year.”

Yale received 5,556 applications this year, 14 percent more than last year, for its nonbinding single-choice early action program, said Jeffrey Brenzel, the dean of admissions, who added that regular applications were running higher, too.

Dartmouth has more applications than ever, early and regular, as do Duke University, the University of Denver and the University of Rochester. Jonathan Burdick, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Rochester, said the school’s reputation for generous merit aid helped draw applicants.

“This is a time when families may be looking at options that are less costly,” Mr. Burdick said. “There are a lot of families who may make $180,000 to $200,000 but can’t afford $50,000 a year and might apply to a Rochester, where merit aid this year can be as much as $14,000.”

Many selective private colleges say fewer applications are no problem.

“We’re down about 16 percent now, and I think we’ll be down 10 to 15 percent at the end, Jan. 1,” said Monica Inzer, the dean of admission and financial aid at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. “If our acceptance rate goes up a little, that’s O.K.”

Mark Hatch, vice president for enrollment management at Colorado College, said he expected to have about 5 percent fewer applicants this year and took a similar view.

“We admitted 26 percent last year, and if it’s 31 percent this year, we’ll make more people happy,” Mr. Hatch said. “I think the economic uncertainty has families, even families of means, telling their children to round out their college lists with state universities. This year, families want two safety nets, one for the first hurdle, admission, and one for affordability. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed a lot of parents this year listing their occupation as unemployed.”

At many colleges, financial aid requests are up significantly. At Connecticut College, for example, 42 percent of the accepted early-decision students applied for financial said, compared with 34 percent last year — and 36 percent qualified for aid, compared with 24 percent last year. This has been a particularly difficult year for small private colleges that accept a majority of their applicants.

Stephen MacDonald, the president of Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., where applications are down about 15 percent, is taking steps to lure more students, including adding lacrosse for men and women and hiring a prominent coach, which he thinks will attract 20 to 25 students.

“We’ve also increased our scholarship award to children of alums, from $500, which is a nice gesture, to $2,500 a year, which is more than a gesture,” Mr. MacDonald said.

“We could still end up down 3 percent, which could sting,” he said. “This is a time when schools like ours, private liberal arts colleges that don’t have a big name, are in a potentially dangerous realm.”