Colleges Trying to Firm Up Shaky Freshman Enrollment

As seniors were graduating this year, colleges and universities were trying to make sure that enough freshmen would enroll for the next semester.
As seniors were graduating this year, colleges and universities were trying to make sure that enough freshmen would enroll for the next semester. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009

For the first time since 2006, the University of Maryland and Virginia Tech created lists of applicants who might get spots in this year's freshman class if enough admitted students decide at the last minute not to attend.

Wait lists help colleges cope in uncertain times. And this summer, colleges are particularly worried about "melt" -- the slow drip of attrition in fall enrollment as students who have paid their deposits contemplate writing their first tuition checks.

The recession has complicated the task of filling the freshman class. Colleges entered summer unsure how the unstable economy would affect final enrollment. Meanwhile, schools are trapped in the same downturn, with shrunken endowments and dwindling funds.

"It's critical we hit the target of how many kids are coming to Tech in fall," said Mark Owczarski, a spokesman for Virginia Tech. After cutbacks in state funding, he said, "we'll need that tuition money."

Schools always collect deposits from more students than they plan to enroll, knowing that some will melt away in summer. This year, no one wanted to come up short. Colleges admitted slightly larger classes, betting that the economy would drive some students from more expensive to less expensive schools and would chase others out of higher education altogether.

So far, the strategy seems to be working. Public and private institutions report a satisfactory yield of students who have accepted offers of admission, paid their deposits and, as of mid-August, still plan to attend. No one will know how the 2009 admission cycle ends until classes begin, about Aug. 31 for most schools.

As recently as June, Aa-iesha Lee, 18, of Bowie thought she would be attending Whittier College in California. Then she did the math. The college offered a $7,000 scholarship, leaving Lee responsible for more than $30,000 in tuition and fees. Her mother works for a congresswoman and has a steady income, but her father's landscaping business has seesawed in the bad economy.

Last month, Lee applied to Bowie State University, where tuition and fees -- not including room and board -- would total $7,794. She had nothing to lose, not having committed to Whittier. By the start of August, she was in, and Whittier College was a memory.

"Now when I look at it, a college education is a college education," Lee said. "Bowie State has a good program."

Every school plans for melt. Some students decide they can't afford college. Others shelve their education plans and spend the year traveling. Some pay deposits at multiple schools, willing to sacrifice a few hundred dollars for the freedom to make a last-minute choice.

The incoming class at Virginia Tech includes 309 students from the wait list. They will help the school reach its enrollment target of 5,025. The school had 5,092 committed students as of Friday, down from 5,490 this time last year. Tech has lost 175 students to melt. Tuition and fees total $8,605 for Virginia residents, $21,878 for nonresidents.

U-Md. assembled a wait list of 450 students this year after learning "that many of our competitor institutions were maintaining wait lists that were larger than they had been in previous years, and that they intended to hold on to those wait lists much longer than they had previously," said Beth Cavanaugh, a spokeswoman. As of this week, the school had pulled fewer than 10 students from the list. Tuition and fees at U-Md. total $8,053 for state residents, $23,990 for nonresidents.

A spring survey of 142 institutions by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that private colleges hedged against recession by admitting 8.7 percent more students this year than last, and public colleges admitted 3.1 percent more students. The average freshman class is growing by about 2 percent.

During the summer, colleges have worked harder than usual to hold on to those students: reaching out to admitted freshmen to lead them through the maze of financial aid and housing assignments and to build a feeling of connectedness to the school.

Admissions counselors at Catholic University hand-lettered their annual summer postcards to welcome incoming freshmen. Trinity Washington University put a new student checklist on Facebook. At American University, returning students have contacted every incoming freshman by e-mail or telephone to offer greetings and help. "I think everybody is doing something to try to be a little more personal," said Sharon Alston, interim executive director for enrollment at American.

AU, a selective private school with $34,456 in annual tuition, collected 1,600 deposits for 1,500 spaces in the freshman class. The school projected it would hold on to about 94 percent of the class through the summer, compared with about 96 percent in previous years.

To limit melt, the university pulled together a campuswide "safety net" of advisers, housing officers, student health workers and anyone else who communicates regularly with incoming students to monitor each student's financial situation and look for signs of anxiety.

The University of Virginia, highly selective and relatively affordable, expects to lose about 60 students this summer from a pool of 3,308 deposits, leaving something close to the target enrollment of 3,240. The school lost 47 students last summer.

Trinity, a Catholic university with a high proportion of low-income students, collected deposits from 300 students and expects to lose 10 percent of them by the start of school. Tuition and fees total $19,520.

"The ability to pay the bill is something that doesn't become a reality until close to opening day," said Patricia McGuire, Trinity's president.

Marymount University in Arlington County is counseling students to report changes in family employment or income and, if necessary, to appeal the school's financial aid decision.

Aid appeals are up by 52 percent at U-Md. The school anticipates its pool of 4,300 committed students to shrink to 4,150 by summer's end.

St. John's College in Annapolis, with a great-books curriculum and tuition and fees of $39,992, is sending out a weekly tongue-in-cheek newsletter to familiarize incoming students with the school's quirky traditions, such as the annual croquet match against the U.S. Naval Academy. The school has increased aid 5 percent to limit attrition. Projected fall enrollment is already down, said spokeswoman Rosemary Harty. "We can't afford summer melt."

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