Dodging the Bullet

July 20, 2009

Step aside, Chicken Little.

Despite dire fears to the contrary, most private colleges expect to maintain or slightly increase enrollment numbers this fall, according to a survey released today by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. While there are certainly exceptions to the average, the NAICU report offers the first comprehensive glimpse of an enrollment picture many thought would be considerably bleaker at private colleges.

Undergraduate enrollment at private colleges is projected to increase slightly -- 0.2 percent – over last fall. This may be in part due to additional measures colleges employed to increase applicant pools, including a decision by more than one-third of respondents to accept late applications or extend the recruiting cycle.

The increases in enrollment numbers varied across respondents, but about 74 percent reported that they were not projecting an enrollment decline -- and some saw increases of more than 5 percent.

NAICU received surveys from nearly 300 institutions, and the news -- while better than expected -- wasn't uniformly sunny. Of those who responded, about 40 percent said they’d lost some students in the 2008-9 academic year or for the fall 2009 term because of the recession.

More than half of those surveyed reported lower than average tuition increases for 2009-10, and 15 percent said they’d significantly increased financial aid offerings.

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, said the surveys results are consistent with what he’s heard from many college presidents in the last month.

“The surprise is that there are not more bad stories than I’ve heard,” he said.

This admissions cycle has been punctuated by periods of anxiety for college officials, who have looked to each phase of the process with trepidation. Many thought application numbers would drop, but few reported that problem. Then the fears built about whether students would actually deliver deposits, but fewer than half of surveyed institutions said they received more late deposits this year than last. Still today, there is nervousness about “summer melt” – the tendency for students to change their minds before fall.

Not surprisingly, admissions and financial aid officials reported taking extra measures to hit enrollment targets. Of those surveyed, about 77 percent said they’d increased institutional aid awards. Anecdotal comments submitted by respondents, however, indicate the approaches many took this year will not be sustainable.

"We are making the 2009-2010 year work, in spite of forgoing tuition increases and increasing institutional aid,” one respondent wrote. “But this approach will only work for one year. Subsequent years will require tuition increases and less increase in institutional aid."

College leaders, knowing they took some unsustainable steps this year, are therefore very concerned about the economic downturn potentially lasting for several more years.

“A lot depends on how long this recession lasts,” Ekman said. “Things could get a lot worse if this goes on much longer, but so far a lot of places are staying above water.”

The recession has not been without its tolls for both students and the institutions they attend. About 39 percent of surveyed colleges said they’d seen students drop out of school because of the recession, and 26 percent said students had switched to part-time status.

Increasing Outreach

Major strategic steps like boosting institutional aid are sure to be credited for helping keep enrollment numbers relatively stable, but some say the more subtle measures colleges used were equally effective. Carrie Carroll, assistant vice president of admissions at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minn., said her office has engaged in more outreach to students throughout the process.

“We are literally talking to the students almost every week,” she said.

The results of Augsburg’s approach have been positive, Carroll said. The college had a target freshman enrollment of 440, but has received deposits from 463 students.

“My president is happy that we’re over 20 as opposed to under 20,” she said.

While the average enrollment is up slightly for private colleges, Carroll said she’d seen some exceptions.

“There are institutions that I see are down 17 percent,” she said. “I don’t know what they are doing.”

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