While Fall U.S. College Enrollment Has Mixed Picture, Tuition Hikes and Greater Admissions Selectivity Not Having Adverse Effect

Fall 2012 enrollment patterns at four-year institutions across the nation are producing a mixed picture of results, as a sampling of schools questioned this week found a variety of factors underlying enrollment experiences to date.

Official reporting of final fall enrollment numbers at most four-year institutions are as much as a month away, as institutions work through final upper class member registrations, freshman enrollment, drop and add periods and other enrollment related activities.

For now, however, as the fall enrollment season heads for the homestretch, some patterns seem fairly set and are reflecting fundamental changes in how institutions do business:

  • Many schools, facing steady income declines and shifts in funder emphasis to improving retention and graduation rates versus boosting enrollment, have imposed more rigid admissions standards, denying admission to hundreds of applicants who would have been easily admitted just a few years ago.
  • The lingering effects of the Great Recession are persuading more and more college- bound students, even those who qualify for admission to a four-year school, to go to community colleges close to their homes where tuition is less expensive than at a four-year institution.

At the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), where tuition and fees for a full-time resident student rose about $150 this year over last, semester hours are expected to increase this fall, despite an anticipated drop in enrollment of nearly 500 students.

“Any time you have increased semester credit hour production based on lower total enrollment the indication is that the enrolled students are enrolling for larger course loads as they intend to move quicker toward graduation,” said Dr. George Norton, associate vice president for student affairs. “That would have the added effect of improving graduation rates,” he added.

Norton said admissions criteria at the university remained the same for this year as last. At the same time, UTSA, one of the nations’ major Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI), “has been more stringent in its application of the individual review process with the intent of enrolling a smaller class that is better prepared for college success compared to previous years,” Norton said.

The story is much the same at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), the Durham, N.C. campus of the University of the University of North Carolina System.

At NCCU, university officials expect enrollment to rise by several hundred students to slightly more than 8,700 from nearly 8,400 this time a year ago, despite an 8.6 percent increase in in-state tuition and fees and a tightening of minimum academic standards that have cost it some potential students.

“The university’s [recruitment] efforts were targeted specifically toward recruiting more highly qualified students,” said Dr. Sharon Oliver, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management at NCCU. “We are reaching out to students that are better prepared for the rigors of college,” Oliver said. “Therefore we are anticipating a stronger academic climate which will lead to higher retention and graduation rates.”

That general pattern at UTSA and NCCU rings true at many public and private, large and small institutions across the country, particularly in the South and along the East Coast.

As other schools layout their stories, their messages too stress new attention and emphasis on abandoning their historic open door roles and new focus on assembling a student body more likely to perform better academically and graduate.

Florida A&M University (FAMU) is expecting fall 2012 enrollment to be as much as 1,000 students lower than this time a year ago for an assortment of reasons, said Dr. William Hudson, vice president for student affairs.

At FAMU, Florida’s only publicly supported Historically Black  College (HBC), tuition is 12 percent higher than this time a year ago, as FAMU and other public institutions of higher learning in Florida scramble to make up for shrinking state support. Admissions standards have been raised and recruitment has become more selective. At the same time, FAMU is wrestling with a major image meltdown stemming from the death last fall of a university band drum major in a student hazing incident.

“I’m not saying the [hazing] issues we had did not have an effect [on expected enrollment], but it is just one of the variables,” Hudson said. “Bad publicity does have an effect.”

FAMU, known for decades for its generous open-door enrollment policies and practices, denied admission to some 1,000 students seeking to enroll this fall. Most did not meet higher admissions criteria that require a minimum 2.5 grade point average and a minimum score in each subsection of the ACT or SAT exam, which ever the prospective student took. Students who don’t meet that criteria can be considered “profile” admits. There is a cap on the number of such students the university will admit.

“We’re not accepting a lot of students we previously would have,” said Hudson, noting this is the second year with new rules that led the university to refuse admission to “a lot of students.”

The rising costs of attending the university is also discouraging many qualified prospects who are poor, all other things considered, said Hudson who noted many eligible students  are opting to attend a community college close to home. FAMU, like other state schools in Florida, has articulation agreements with the state’s community colleges, he said, and offers FAMU scholarships to community college students who earn their associate arts degree and have a minimum 2.5 grade point average.  

“We’re talking with a lot of families that just can’t afford to go to a four-year college,” said Hudson. “The amount of money you can save [by going to a community college] is astronomical,” he said, noting some families, many already hard hit before the Great Recession, are not even applying for admission, as the application costs a non-refundable $35.

At Spelman College, a private university for women, enrollment has already reached the 1,900 mark, school officials said. It expects enrollment will reach 2,100 by the time the final count is done.

“Numbers are holding steady,” said Arlene Wesley Cash, vice president for enrollment management at Spelman, based in Atlanta. “Our visits are up.  People asking for applications, up, number of applications received last year, up,” Cash said.

Encouraging results aside, Cash said “students are making decisions more and more based on scholarship availability,” a fact of recruiting life that puts most HBCU’s and HSI’s at a disadvantage when competing with larger non-minority institutions with deeper pockets. Spelman has scholarships. Just not as many and not as large.

“We lose many of our admitted students to schools like Rice, Harvard and even Howard because they are able to offer need based scholarships to students with incomes as high as $100,000 or merit scholarships simply because a student has high SAT or ACT scores and or high grades,” Cash explained. In such cases, she said the school does its best to sell the intangible “unique” Spelman experience. In many cases, the students feel compelled to follow the money. In others, selling the “unique” Spelman experience saves the day.

As for changing its already selective strategy of recruiting, Cash said Spelman relies on more than SAT or ACT scores and grade point averages to determine who to admit. It has no minimum admissions criteria, she said, noting the school considers those scores along with a student’s overall grades, strength of their high school curriculum, essay, recommendations, service history and leadership potential.

“We don’t have to limit ourselves to just grades and scores,” Cash said. “Such numbers rarely tell the full story of a student’s potential.”