Enrollment boom College: Officials at private universities in the Northeast are seeing a larger-than-expected influx of new students. And they're not sure why.

September 28, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

At many private colleges throughout the Northeast, enrollments have shot higher, far beyond expected levels, leaving educators scrambling to figure out why.

Each campus offers a host of convincing reasons for its growth. At Washington College, for example, officials talk about new scholarships for honor students. At Maryland Institute, College of Art, administrators speak of new facilities. And at Western Maryland College, the rise is attributed partly to an aggressive new advertising campaign.

But the overall trend, consistent throughout a region stretching from Maryland to Maine, remains unexplained.

"If I had the answer to that one, my team of consultants and I would be happy to respond from my yacht off Bimini," said Kevin Coveney, Washington College's vice president for admissions and enrollment management. "Everybody got faked out."

Some college officials initially connected some of the record-setting enrollment levels to the baby boom ripple -- the wave of children of baby boomers headed to college. But the steady growth of college-age Marylanders since 1989 has been taken into account by college planners.

Most campuses rely heavily on the practice of "enrollment management," which uses complex statistical models to project the number of students a college needs to admit to ensure its "yield" -- the percent of accepted students who enroll. This year, the estimates of the yield were simply wrong.

"The baby boom ripple has nothing to do with this, in my judgment," said Robert J. Massa, dean of enrollment management at the Johns Hopkins University.

Several educators suggested that a relatively robust economy has left many Americans feeling financially confident -- and more willing to pay the fees of more than $20,000 a year charged by many private colleges.

In addition, said Thomas G. Mortenson, editor of the Iowa City, Iowa-based monthly Post-Secondary Education Opportunity, private schools have marketed themselves aggressively.

Western Maryland, for example, has started an intense radio campaign and has renewed efforts in the Washington suburbs. And Washington College started a splashy $10,000 annual merit scholarship for accepted students who were members of their high school's National Honor Society chapter.

Also, Mortenson said, state governments are dedicating less money to their public campuses. Since 1978, Maryland's government spending on public universities per $1,000 of personal income has fallen about 28 percent, which is also the national average's decline, he said.

A better education?

So parents juggling questions of quality and cost who see consistent cuts in state spending on higher education might lean toward private colleges, which are often perceived as offering students more attention.

But those reasons, Mortenson conceded, still do not explain such distinct single-year enrollment jumps.

At Washington College, for example, admissions officials hoped to secure 312 new students, including freshmen and transfer students. That was up from 270 the year before, as the college builds up to a total student body exceeding 1,000. But some 340 new students ultimately enrolled.

At the Maryland Institute, administrators set a target of 268 new students. Instead, 333 freshmen and transfer students enrolled, nearly 25 percent more students than expected. That number ZTC would have been higher yet, but Theresa Lynch Bedoya, the school's vice president of admissions and financial aid, persuaded 30 other students to delay matriculating at the Baltimore campus.

Western Maryland welcomed 440 freshmen this year, 10 percent more than the target and 17 percent more than last year.

At Hopkins, the levels of freshmen leapt from 876 to 1,020 this year, a striking 16.4 percent increase. The university had sought to enroll 915 students.

In Northeastern states, Union, Skidmore and Swarthmore colleges, among others, reported double-digit increases in the size of their freshman classes this fall.

Some see slower growth

In Maryland, a few private schools had slower growths in enrollment: Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg rose more than 10 percent to 370 freshmen and transfers, but that was only 10 students more than officials there had planned. Loyola College of Maryland, which has an enrollment restricted by an agreement with neighbors, bounced up just 3 percent above its target, to 824 new students. And Goucher College continued several years of steady growth, with 15 more new students than expected.

Officials say figures from the state's public campuses show that the enrollment jumps are not linked just to larger numbers of high school graduates.

'Puzzling' data

At the University of Maryland System, figures were not available for freshman and new student enrollments for all 11 undergraduate campuses. But UMS administrators had expected 107,935 students to enroll -- a 1.7 percent increase over last year. Instead, system spokesman John Lippincott said, the student body either will decline or, at most, match last year, despite a record freshman class at Towson State University.

"I find the [enrollment] data puzzling," said Joyce A. Kroeller, director of CollegeBound, a private Baltimore-based scholarship program for public school students. "It may be that this proves a single-year aberration. We'll have to see."

Pub Date: 9/28/96

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