Public colleges are looking better to affluent families

Cost-driven trend worries some private institutions

February 19, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

College-bound students are thinking green this year, and it has nothing to do with ivy.

Families who in the past would have favored private colleges are, amid a long economic slump, taking another look at public higher education, say Maryland college officials and high school guidance counselors.

The trend - seen even in well-off families - is making admission into public universities more competitive and worrying private colleges without Ivy League reputations to go with their high cost.

The University of Maryland, College Park has seen a 20 percent increase in freshman applications over 2002 - a year that itself saw a record jump in applications.

Officials speculate that the increase is driven, in part, by the school's rising reputation and the boom in college-age students. But they also say that families formerly inclined toward private higher education are now looking for bargains.

"People say, `If I can still get a great education at a cheaper price, I'm going to want to do that,'" said Jackie Jeter-Hunter, UM's assistant director of undergraduate admissions.

Towson University has received about 10,000 applications, also a 20 percent increase over last year. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County is forecasting an increase of 15 to 20 percent. St. Mary's College, which advertises itself as offering a private college-type education at a lower cost, has seen a 20 percent increase.

For students hoping to attend public universities, the rise in cost-consciousness has made getting in much harder. The College Park flagship campus plans to accept fewer than half of its roughly 24,000 applicants; Towson is planning to accept no more than 5,000 of its nearly 11,000.

"We don't like to be in that position," said Patty Sheehan, marketing director for Towson's admissions department. "We don't like to have good students not get admitted here."

The statewide trend is paralleled nationwide, said David Hopkins, director of public policy for the National Association of College Admissions Counseling. In a recent survey of admissions counselors, the great majority attributed the increase in students attending colleges in their home state to the economy rather than fears about terrorism or other factors.

Private schools worry

For private colleges, families' growing cost-awareness has made for an anxious admissions season. Many independent schools in Maryland are reporting slight increases in applications, but that's not necessarily reassuring because they realize seniors might be applying to both private and public colleges, then waiting to see where they get in before doing a final cost comparison.

The true measure of the economy's effect on college decisions will come in April and May, when students respond to offers of admission.

"That's when the rubber will hit the road," said Corky Surbeck, admissions director at Goucher College, which has seen an 8 percent increase in applications. Goucher expects to accept about 65 percent of its applicants.

In their battle to hold their own against families' mounting financial concerns, private colleges are reminding students that they are less expensive than some might believe.

Goucher's tuition and room and board runs close to $30,000, for instance, but 70 percent of its students receive some form of need-based or merit-based aid.

And, private college officials note, costs are rising at public campuses even faster than they are at most independent colleges.

Still, the private colleges concede that they have less ability to offer discounts to entice students this year because their endowments have suffered in the stock market slump and private donations are down.

Full sticker price

Most worrisome to private colleges are indications that even many well-off families are turning toward public higher education.

The wealthiest students are usually the only ones who are expected to pay the full sticker price of private colleges, and many of their parents are now wondering whether it's worth $30,000 or more a year, guidance counselors say.

In past downturns, officials say, the up-tick in interest in public colleges was primarily from middle-class students whose parents were being squeezed. Now, with the reputation of public universities such as UM on the rise, even elite preparatory schools such as St. Paul's are reporting a jump in applications to public colleges.

"It's hit us as well as everyone else - we've got more and more kids looking at public colleges and universities," said Mitch Whitely, a college counselor at St. Paul's, in Brooklandville. "Parents say, `Maybe Princeton or Harvard is worth $40,000, but I'm not going to pay $36,000 for [another college] without the reputation.' They say, `Charlie can [enroll in] the honors program at Delaware instead.'"

The loss of wealthy students is painful for private colleges, which rely on the full tuition they pay to subsidize the cost for poorer students and thereby help keep the colleges socio-economically diverse.

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