A Mixed and Uncertain Admissions Year

For private colleges, the picture shifts from (terrible) survey results to the actual totals. And they aren't all terrible.

June 8, 2020
 
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Occidental College is a good illustration of the admissions challenges facing private colleges this year.

On June 1, Occidental had 572 deposits from freshmen for the fall. That is just slightly below the 580 to 590 Occidental estimates it needs to have a good class, when considering the inevitability of summer melt. The college's target was 535.

But this year, summer melt -- when some students who have accepted offers of admission say they will go elsewhere -- started early. The college has already lost 41 students to summer melt. (Some committed prior to June 1.) So with 531 students now, it is likely (if summer melt continues) to be short of its enrollment goals, likely by 10 percent or more.

Some would say that being down 10 percent in freshmen would be good for a college like Occidental. Surveys of potential college students have suggested that as many as 20 percent of college freshmen aren't going to their original first-choice college. Some will stay home and go to a community college. Others will enroll closer to home. Others won't go to college at all.

In reviewing private colleges' real numbers as of June 1 (the date many of them gave students to reply to admissions offers), Inside Higher Ed came up with no single trend to define their performance. All are working hard (well into summer) on their classes. For some, this is later than they usually have to focus on a new class. But their successes and disappointments vary.

There are private colleges (and we're leaving out the hypercompetitive here, figuring the Ivies will be just fine in the end) that are meeting -- or coming close to -- their targets for a freshman class. And there are also colleges whose totals are off by 20 percent or more today.

Finally, there are colleges that declined to give any numbers at all, despite the fact that these numbers are among those most important to their colleges. Alma, Connecticut and Elmira Colleges and DePaul and Pace Universities are all in this group.

Adding to the uncertainty about the year is that 2020 was the first year since the National Association for College Admission Counseling amended its rules governing the recruitment of students, under pressure from the Justice Department. NACAC no longer bans colleges from recruiting students who have committed to attend elsewhere -- and many colleges are in fact doing so.

Signs of Health

First, some colleges showing signs of health.

Janet Lape Marsden, vice president for communications at Kenyon College, said the college has a goal of enrolling 500 new students in the fall, and it has 538 deposits. The class is expected to be Kenyon's most racially diverse ever. And Kenyon hasn't received an unusual number of deferral requests.

Kenyon, like every college, abandoned in-person visits to its beautiful campus. "We instead created a number of opportunities for personal engagement, and our faculty and students eagerly helped our admissions staff in fostering virtual connections with prospective students over a variety of digital platforms," Marsden said.

Or consider Assumption College, in Massachusetts. Michael K. Guilfoyle, a spokesman, said the college has 609 deposits from freshmen for the fall, up from 593 at this time last year. The college attributes the success to a number of factors -- it cut the deposits students must pay from $400 to $50, and the college created a special fund for those students whose families were affected by the pandemic.

Of those who made deposits, 168 were awarded scholarships from the fund.

Muhlenberg College surpassed its first-year budget target of 550 with 575 deposits for the fall.

Many have predicted that New York City colleges would have a particularly hard time with admissions this year due to the pandemic, which was particularly felt there.

John W. Buckley, vice president for admission and student financial services at Fordham University, said the numbers there were below their targets, but not terrible.

Fordham currently has 2,239 deposits against a target of 2,300.

John Beckman, a spokesman, said New York University is not seeing any signs of a hesitation to enroll at a college in New York City. "We had a record number of applications, as well as record low acceptance rate -- 15 percent -- record high SAT scores and record-tying diversity," he said. "Our yield was where we expected it to be, and deposits have been right on target."

Bucknell University, which last year had a scare on yield, this year has 1,032 committed students on a target of 990.

Dordt University, in Iowa, had a goal of recruiting 370 freshmen for the class that enters in the fall. It has 366, which it considers good -- although officials are working to get more out of fears of summer melt. Current students have been a big part of recruitment efforts, speaking to prospective students.

In Oregon, Lewis & Clark College is having a good year. As of June 1, the college has 565 deposits. Last year, it had 531 deposits, which resulted in 506 matriculating students. If this year's summer melt is the same, it will have 530 freshmen in the fall, which exceeds the budget target of 526.

Eric P. Staab, vice president for admissions and financial aid, sent an email to colleagues in which he cautioned against premature celebrations. "As we all know, any forecast based on historical patterns is dicey this year, so it is too early to celebrate. Economic uncertainty for families, and the unpredictability of the course of the pandemic over the next few months may greatly change what happens," he said.

Difficulties

At Reed College, Milyon Trulove, vice president and dean of admissions, said the college had -- as of June 1 -- 388 first-year students committed. Last year at this time, it had 410 students. The goal for students to actually enroll is 385 to 395.

Since shutting down the campus, he said, admissions have gone virtual, with apparent success. "Our highest-attended event was a conversation with the president and her wife -- over 200 families joined us to learn more about Reed from our newest president," he said.

At Wells College, which has said it would be forced to close if New York governor Andrew Cuomo does not permit the resumption of in-person classes, the college had 140 deposits for new first-year students as of June 3. The college's goal for the year is 145 to 165 first-year students.

Union College, also in New York, has 520 deposits toward a target of 570. The college is working off its waiting list and has reopened admissions for those looking for a spot.

Furman University, in South Carolina, had a goal for its freshman class, pre-COVID-19, of 635. As of June 1, it has 539 students. In addition, it gave 42 students extensions of admissions offers until June 15.

"We are still working with many active admits who have not made a deposit anywhere or formally asked for an extension, remaining as flexible as possible," said M. Brad Pochard, associate vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and financial aid at Furman.

Furman also reopened admissions for the year.

At Otterbein University, in Ohio, officials have introduced a full tuition scholarship for students whose parents lost jobs in the pandemic.

Jefferson Blackburn-Smith, vice president of enrollment management, said the college currently has 500 freshmen signed up for the fall. The goal (based on where the college was last year at this time) is 623.

"We're off, but we're really engaged," he said.

He said he is currently expecting the college to end up with around 540 to 550 freshmen.

Paul Steenis, vice president of enrollment and dean of admission at Knox College, in Illinois, said the college currently has 290 freshmen signed up. The original goal was 320.

He said that deposits from Americans are up. The decrease is entirely from international students, for whom deposits have dropped from 68 to 28, including no students from China.

"I'm feeling really good," he said. There are worries, such as whether the 28 international students who have accepted admissions offers will have visa problems.

But based on discussions with about 100 students who have not given an answer to Knox's admissions offer, Steenis said he believed the college would meet its goal.

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