Managing the Admissions Challenge

A variety of strategies -- some of which would be expensive to continue -- got institutions through the last, economically messy year, survey finds.
September 25, 2009

BALTIMORE -- Ninety percent of colleges reported increases in financial aid applications this year, and 74 percent of colleges reported an increase in the number of students offered institutional grant aid, according to a survey being released today by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Those numbers -- from a survey of NACAC's members, released at the association's annual meeting here -- are in some ways not surprising, as admissions officers have been saying for most of the last year that requests for aid were increasing and that their institutions were scrambling to add funds to help those hurt (or scared) by the collapsing national economy.

But the survey also has some surprises in what did not change. And the stability is part of why many college admissions officers here are breathing sighs of relief about the admissions cycle just completed.

For instance, this was supposed to be the year of increased "summer melt," in which students who have committed to enroll in the fall change their minds over the summer. In fact, NACAC found the same percentage of colleges reporting decreased summer melt as reporting increased summer melt (28 percent each way), while 43 percent of colleges saw no change. Likewise, many colleges feared that summer melt would be followed by late no-shows, with students simply not arriving in the fall, as they either put off higher education or found less expensive or more prestigious institutions. But only 21 percent of colleges reported such increases, while 56 percent saw their numbers stay the same, and 23 percent saw decreases.

In terms of enrollment changes for the fall of 2009, compared to a year before, many expected the numbers for public institutions to be up, but didn't necessarily expect that to be the case for private colleges. The NACAC survey found enrollment going up across the board, with 71 percent of publics and 52 percent of privates reporting gains. However, more private institutions than publics (24 percent vs. 14 percent) reported declines. In terms of freshman enrollment, public colleges were more likely than privates to see increases (58 percent vs. 44 percent).

And the gap was greater for new transfer students, suggesting to some here that cost may be a motivating factor for the rising numbers of transfers. Of public institutions, 72 percent reported increases in transfer enrollment, compared to only 45 percent of private institutions.

So how did colleges get through the year -- a year that the survey found was made more difficult by budget cuts and freezes in both admissions offices and high school guidance offices? Admitting more students and offering them more aid were key strategies, but colleges used a number of other tactics as well. While many officials here said that they planned to continue using these strategies, they also noted that they may be expensive -- in some cases prohibitively so -- in the years ahead.

Strategies Used by Colleges in 2009 or Planned for 2010

Strategy Publics Privates
Admitting more applicants 62.2% 68.7%
Admitting more applicants through early decision or early action 15.6% 30.8%
Added a waiting list for the first time 16.7% 3.0%
Compiled a longer waiting list 20.0% 23.2%
Accepted more students from the waiting list 15.6% 22.7%
Extended usual deadline 27.8% 18.7%
Increased deferred admissions offers 15.6% 7.6%
Awarded larger grants 36.7% 60.1%
Offered grants to more students 50.0% 53.0%


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