College enrollment a gamble

Tight economy has officials shifting admissions strategy

June 22, 2008|By Matt Simon | Matt Simon,Special to The Sun

With economic pressures apparently pushing families to reconsider spending tens of thousands of dollars per year on tuition, many of Maryland's private colleges say they are being forced to use new tactics this year to meet their enrollment targets for this fall.

From dipping deep into their waiting lists to putting together more aggressive packages of financial aid and loans, higher education officials say they are facing major challenges to ensure that the high school seniors they admitted last month actually attend in August.

Some local schools admitted more students than usual this year, anticipating that the nation's economic downturn would prompt more families to choose the less-expensive options of two-year colleges or four-year public colleges and universities.

"It's a very funny year," said John Baworowsky, vice president for enrollment management at Hood College in Frederick. "I think colleges across the country are very nervous about what people are going to do."

In a survey by The Sun of many of Maryland's private colleges, four acknowledged dipping deeper into their waiting lists than in past years to fill this fall's freshman class. But several higher education officials believe the number of schools that did so is probably much higher.

"I've been doing this 20 years, and I've not seen a year like this in terms of wait-list activity," said Mark Camille, vice president for enrollment management at Loyola College of Maryland. "You know, it's not something that people like to admit to."

The economy is altering the way students use the application process, experts say. Some applicants are sending in spring enrollment deposits to more than one school, and then using financial aid offers from each one as bargaining chips.

In the education industry, the new trend is called "summer melt." It is a troubling problem, according to Goucher College President Sanford J. Ungar, who is chairman of the Maryland Independent College and University Association.

"It's an entirely unethical thing - some people are depositing in two or more places and are then keeping their options open while they bargain for financial aid," Ungar said. "And the bargaining over financial aid is tougher than it's ever been before."

Another reason for the intensified bargaining: tougher standards to qualify for student loans.

"It leaves students and their parents questioning the value of higher education," Camille said. "If I'm going to spend $45,000, what does that get versus spending $20,000 for the public institution?"

Enrollment figures suggest less-expensive community colleges appear to be a more popular option for high school seniors.

At the Community College of Baltimore County, for example, enrollment is up nearly 20 percent for the second part of the summer, according to Dan McConochie, senior director of planning, research and evaluation.

"I think we're getting applications and course registrations that are going to be higher than what we've seen in the last year," McConochie said. "I think that there's some pushback because of family income, because it might not be what it was - might not be as high as it was."

Many four-year Maryland schools are admitting more students in the hope that even if fewer applicants accept admission, they will still be able to meet desired class sizes.

"We were looking to grow the enrollment this year so we were looking to have more admits out there," said Kevin Coveney, director of admissions at Washington College in Chestertown. "I think we guessed right early on and sort of modeled our guessing that it was going to be a more challenging year for small, private, independent colleges like Washington."

The Maryland Institute College of Art significantly boosted the number of students it admitted, leaving it as one of the few schools to exceed its target.

"We were very concerned that the economy would impact our enrollment," said Theresa Beyoda, MICA's vice president for admission and financial aid. "I still am cautious about how these numbers will hold over the summer."

Admitting more students could have a negative impact on a school's reputation because it makes the school appear less selective, said Florence Hines, vice president for enrollment management at McDaniel College in Westminster.

"But those students could be wait-listed instead," Hines said. "Schools can play numbers games, depending on what they are trying to accomplish. They can wait-list more students, and then release students from the wait list and offer them admission.

"But just because you release someone from the wait list and admit them, it doesn't mean they're going to come, guaranteed," she said.

Goucher College in Towson has released about 70 students from its wait list after missing its target for next year's class. The liberal arts college hopes 60 of them will accept admission.

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