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College jitters aren't just for students

Admissions officials are anxious too, as the dismal economy makes

March 08, 2009|Larry Gordon

It's not much solace for nervous college applicants awaiting acceptance or rejection letters, but there is plenty of anxiety this month inside college admissions offices as well.

Many colleges and universities in California and around the country report unprecedented uncertainty about how the depressed economy and state budget cuts could affect fall enrollments. As a result, they say they cannot rely this year on the admission formulas that typically help them hit enrollment targets without overcrowding dorms.

So, many say they are doing things differently this month as they prepare to send admissions letters and online notifications.

Many private colleges and universities, for instance, say they will accept more applicants than in previous years and put more names on waiting lists in case families' money worries mean fewer students than usual decide to attend.

But public schools, including the University of California and California State University, which are facing enrollment cuts amid stronger demand for their relatively low-cost education, will accept fewer students than usual this year. Some are starting waiting lists for the first time.

And many in both sectors said they will put extra effort this spring into receptions and campus visits for admitted students before the May 1 deposit deadlines. The wooing of students from waiting lists also may go deeper into the summer than usual, some experts predict.

"There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty" among colleges this admissions season, said Jonathan Brown, president of the Assn. of Independent California Colleges and Universities. He described the situation as "the most confusing" in the 30 years he has been involved in higher education.

Susan Wilbur, UC's systemwide director of undergraduate admissions, said the grim economic news makes it tougher than usual to predict enrollment. "How this will come out is hard to say. It is a difficult year for admission officers and for families," she said.

Many different -- and conflicting -- trends are at play. The pool of high school graduates is slightly smaller this year than last. Yet in bad economic times, more people usually attend college, particularly public colleges, rather than look for jobs. With growing unemployment and dwindling college savings accounts, only hefty financial aid will persuade some students to enroll at an out-of-town public university, let alone a private campus, rather than a local community college. In addition, for many families, there is uncertainty about student loans and reluctance to take on debt.

At the same time, enrollment cutbacks at UC and Cal State and worries about the availability of classes there may send some students to private colleges that may offer generous financial aid.

"It's almost like role reversal" with applicants, said Sandra Hayes, Santa Clara University's dean of undergraduate admission. "Usually they are waiting on pins and needles for us," she said. "It's our turn to be in the hot seat this year."

Santa Clara probably will raise its acceptance rate from about 58% to 60% and expand its waiting list, she said.

Other private schools, including USC, Boston College and Colgate University, also say they expect to raise admittance rates by a couple of points or so in case more accepted students than usual choose to enroll at public universities instead.

L. Katharine Harrington, USC's dean of admission and financial aid, said that if the school decides to exceed last year's 22% acceptance rate, she will happily take the risk that more students than expected might show up in the fall.

"That's the thing I'd love to get my hand slapped for," she said, jokingly adding that she would open her home to students left without dorm rooms.

USC received 35,600 applications this year, about 200 fewer than last year. But to help ease families' financial concerns, the school is boosting its budget for undergraduate financial aid by 8%.

Among colleges expecting to expand their waiting lists this year are Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, the University of Washington in Seattle, and Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.

At Loyola Marymount, Matthew Fissinger, director of undergraduate admission, anticipates that more families will push their decisions as late as possible this year. "It's going to be a year when families are going to be very careful and thorough in comparing their options in admission and financial aid," he said.

At Stanford University too, officials said the traditional formulas no longer apply.

In response to a new financial aid program that waives tuition for families earning up to $100,000, freshman applications shot up 20% from last year, to 30,300, said Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid. So Stanford expects to reduce its acceptance rate to 8% from about 9.5% last year, he said.

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