Tough Year for Midwestern Liberal Arts Colleges

For some institutions that would typically have their classes set by now, application numbers were disappointing and deposits have lagged. "June 1 may be the new May 1."

May 15, 2017
 

Every spring, you can expect an announcement from Williams College about a record number of applications, and record achievement levels in the applicant pool and among those who were admitted. Here's this year's announcement.

But leave New England and head to the Midwest, and it's a different picture for some liberal arts institutions this year. For some colleges -- including institutions with stellar academic reputations, brilliant faculty members and quads that make prospective students want to enroll -- the admissions cycle that theoretically ended May 1 has been anything but smooth. And admissions officials who might be now be focused on preventing summer melt are still building their classes.

"If 'Orange is the New Black,' and '40 is the new 30,' then perhaps June 1 may be the new May 1," quipped Ken Anselment, dean of admissions and financial aid at Lawrence University.

As of last week, Lawrence was approaching 350 in terms of numbers of deposits to enroll in the fall, running 10-15 deposits behind last year at this time, and short of the goal of 375. Applications were slightly up at Lawrence this year, hitting 3,600, but getting students to commit has been difficult. The Wisconsin liberal arts institution is down a bit on international students -- typically there are 40 to 45 committed by now, but the number is only 35. "The United States is not projecting the most welcome of welcome mats," Anselment said.

And then students seem to be hesitant to make a final choice, even up to and after the May 1 deadline. "The world has conditioned many students to believe that deadlines don't matter much any more," he said.

With the applicant pool that was as strong as last year's, Anselment is confident he'll close the gap. But it hasn't made for a relaxing May.

For other liberal arts colleges in the Midwest, the challenge has been building a class (which many say they have done) with notable declines in applications. At just about any competitive colleges, there are far more applicants who could succeed and even thrive than there are spaces. So a higher admit rate need not mean that the sky is falling. But prominent institutions aren't used to application declines.

Kenyon College received 5,600 applications for the class enrolling in the fall. That's down from 6,400 the previous year, and a record 7,077 the year before. The admit rate has gone up from 24 percent two years ago to 33 percent this year. The college isn't yet releasing the number of deposits, saying that it has offers out to people on the waiting list.

Grinnell College may illustrate that a notable decline in applications and increase in the admit rate need not mean a smaller first-year class. The college has 472 deposits, up 8 percent from last year, and the statistics on academic quality and diversity are similar to last year's. The discount rate is likely to end up around 57 percent, only a smidge above last year's 56.8 percent.

But those numbers emerged from a much smaller applicant pool. This year, the college had 5,850 applicants, down 21 percent in a year from 7,370. This year Grinnell admitted almost 200 more applicants than last year, so the admit rate increased in a year from 20 percent to 29 percent.

Some liberal arts colleges in the Midwest are reporting only modest application declines. Oberlin College had 7,204 applications (excluding the conservatory) this year, a decline of less than 1 percent (from what had been a record year). The college isn't ready to talk yield as it is doing some admitting from the waiting list.

Some liberal arts colleges are reporting successful years.

The College of Wooster saw a slight (1 percent) decline in applications, to 5,598. But deposits are now at 582, against a budgeted goal of 550. A few of those with deposits will end up elsewhere, but the college expects to end up at 565-570, well above the target. The entering class looks to be 17 percent international, a record for the college.

Denison University is reporting solid gains from last year: Applications are up 10 percent, the admissions rate is down to 37 percent from 44 percent a year ago, and the yield is up to 23 from 21 percent.

But more typical may be Ripon College, which is reporting that it has been dealing with a "flat" admissions cycle, without much increasing or decreasing throughout the process, with one exception. The discount rate is up, which was "intentional," according to Leigh Mlodzik, dean of admission. On the discount rate, he didn't describe the numbers in detail but said that "we believed that our competitors were going to be aggressive with their discounting which is why we wanted to be very competitive from the outset."

New Strategies at Augustana

Augustana College, in Illinois, is headed to exceed its goals for the year, but with a number of adjustments in strategy this year -- including increases in the admit rate and the discount rate.

W. Kent Barnds, executive vice president for enrollment, communication and planning, said this year was an "odd cycle" and the college knew it would be facing tougher competition than in the past from other private colleges in the region. So despite a 1 percent decline in applications, Augustana admitted 600 more students than last year -- 3,970 compared to 3,359. Yield is down slightly -- 19 percent compared to 20 percent. But the college has 745 deposits, compared to 678 at this point last year and a goal for this year of 700.

The admit rate is up significantly -- from 51 to 59 percent. But the academic quality of admitted students is fairly level -- with an ACT composite score of 25.7 this year, down just one-tenth of one percent.

Augustana, like Wooster, is seeing international gains in a year many have feared declines, but they come from a new strategy. The college decided to start using recruiting agents abroad, consistent, Barnds stressed, with the guidelines of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. So this fall, 89 international students are expected, up from 38 a year ago. The largest contingent will be from Vietnam.

With so many students admitted, the discount rate is up to a level that might make some nervous. With an increase of 1.5 percentage points, it's now over 60 percent.

But Barnds said that the financial focus is on net tuition revenue, not the discount rate. He said the college will meet its revenue target -- and that's what matters the most.

For Augustana, mixing up the strategy has worked, even if it results in a high discount rate, he said. "I'd rather be where we find ourselves" than among those looking for students in May, he said.

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