Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Economy and College Admissions


There was a timely article on the front page of the NY Times today on:

"Tough Times Strain Colleges Rich and Poor"

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/08/education/08college.html?_r=1&hp=&adxnnl=1&oref=slogin&adxnnlx=1226153384-wFJW2ebTcoxE37YFN4fGBA

I was pretty shocked that there was not more discussion about this at the NACAC Conference. Not that the report on testing or panels, like the one I was on, about disclosure, are not important issues, but they are far overshadowed by how ecomomic conditions are going to affect students, parents and colleges.

There are going to be some sea changes affecting students and colleges, especially if these economic conditions persist for more than one admissions cycle:

1) Public colleges, especially inexpensive ones, will be flocked with huge numbers of applications. Many will rise in ratings, due to astronomically higher selectivity. Ironically, this will coincide with substantial budget cuts which will reduce the actual quality of instruction with larger classes, program cuts and deferred maintenance. Many flagship universities will be forced to abandon their traditional mission of admitting and educating a wide range of students as many previously qualified students will be turned away. There will be more and more pressure to admit higher paying out of state students for the tuition they bring in. At many, there will be (quietly) lower admissions standards for out-of-state students, something which spark outrage when some state senator's child is denied admission when lower qualified out-of-state students are admitted.

2) What we all feared when "need aware" admissions began will start to become a reality. More and more colleges will apply different admissions standards for those applying for aid than those who do not. Need aware admissions will apply, for many, not just for those in the margins of the academic pool or those with very high need. Some extremely strong students in the pool with high need will be denied as well as some students with average need who are in the middle of the pool.
3) Many tuition driven schools will begin to falter. There will be more college closings than ever before, more mergers, more changes in missions, more questionable marketing techniques and admissions actions.

4) At private colleges, the perfect storm of fewer applications, more students needing aid and those seeking aid having higher need, dramatic devaluation of endowments, huge pressures to keep costs low, and dramatically higher costs for many goods and services will put economic pressures that will be greater than many have ever seen before. Many projects will be cancelled or deferred, priorities re-examined and cost cutting will be the mantra of college presidents.

5) Many private colleges will open their doors in the fall with empty dorm rooms, insufficient revenue to cover costs, much larger classes, and major faculty upheaval as personnel costs are brought down.

6) Public colleges will, while seeing dramatically higher demand, be slashing services. More adjuncts will be teaching classes, athletic teams will be cut, classes will be much larger, programs will be cut and everything from college radio stations to cleaning services will see smaller budgets.

Not everything will be bad for all colleges. Those with large endowments will weather the storm and even thrive as they will be able to attract and fund an ever more talented student body. Many colleges will begin to do what they should have done many years ago: order their priorities. Not all colleges can be all things to all students. Not all college can have state-of-the-art athletic, arts and science facilities. Many college will need to focus on strengthening what they do best. Many colleges will need to step out of the merit scholarship rat race in order to provide need based aid to their students. Students, like many of their parents, may have to forgo some of the amenities that they have come to expect at colleges.

From the student and parent point of view, many will have to drastically change their plans, assumptions, priorities and dreams. As a middle income parent of a high school senior (with two younger children), the prospect of saying to my child that she should apply only to colleges which are the best fit and that we will find a way to pay for it, is changing each day. More and more uncomfortable discussions of what might have to be, in response to financial realities, are taking place. At every income level, these discussion are becoming more and more common.

From the consumer end, the perfect storm of rising admissions standards and increasing costs at public colleges, less financial aid from private colleges and a drying up of credit for student loans will force many unpleasant choices in the months ahead.

I think organizations like NACAC need to be more nimble to discuss dramatic societal events like this at our conferences, in our discussion groups and in our policies. Like a sports team that has suddenly lost its top player due to injury, I think we need to more quickly and ably adjust to new realities and what they mean to our members as well as the students and parents they affect.

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