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College Officials Strategizing to Ensure Fall Enrollment in Tough Economy

When colleges and universities across the nation began seeing significant drops in enrollment last fall and this winter, the unexpected and costly downward shifts sent recruiting and admissions officers scrambling.

Now, with admissions season at full tilt but household finances evaporating as the economy continues to sputter, school officials are creating myriad strategies to ensure the students they are admitting this spring and the ones currently in school will actually enroll this fall.

Morehouse College, which saw a 4 percent drop in enrollment this spring as students found themselves financially unable to continue their studies, is leaving nothing to chance. It’s putting financial aid packages “on the table” months earlier than in the past and abandoning its traditional hot pursuit of “blue chip” students who might be persuaded to come to Morehouse. Instead, it’s targeting top students who had expressed a strong interest in attending the school. The school also abandoned its relationships with private banks last month and has returned to the government’s direct student lending program, a more reliable source for funding student loans in this economy.


“In a lot of ways, the admissions process is a crap shoot,” says Sterling Hudson, dean of admissions at Morehouse College, the historically Black men’s college in Atlanta. “This year it’s a crap shoot, and you’re blindfolded,” says Hudson, echoing the sentiments of admissions, enrollment and financial aid officers at institutions across the nation.

“There’s lots of uncertainty and anxiety among admissions officers about enrollment,” says Hudson. “All of us can sound confident, but behind closed doors we’re nervous. When colleges budget for a year, they are not looking at a million dollar swing,” says Hudson, noting that just a 50-student drop in enrollment could cost his school, where tuition, room and board costs $32,000 a year, $1.6 million in lost revenue.

Applications for admission, boosted by the surge in high school graduates this spring, have not been a concern, say officials at public and private colleges in rural and urban settings. The universal worry is being able to convert these admits into actual paying enrollees.

In New Orleans, Xavier University of Louisiana, is courting its admits harder, with each receiving personal letters from the school president and other school administrators, immediate assignment of an e-mail address aimed at drawing them into the Xavier community faster, family counseling about taking out loans to pay for college and one-on-one assistance with completing FAFSA forms.

Spelman College, the private women’s college in Atlanta, has boosted visits to its campus by 40 percent. It is working more closely with high school counselors, admitting more students and assigning an additional staffer (two, up from one) to work exclusively on scholarship aid “search and match.”

Morgan State University, in Baltimore, is increasing its targeted written, telephone and e-mail correspondence by 10 percent, encouraging students to file their FAFSA forms early, take advantage of need-based financial aid from the state of Maryland, and working with students to defer loan payments over a longer period of time. This, despite a 54 percent year-to-year increase in applications to a record 12,743 applications, compared to 8,247 in the spring of 2008.

With the economy in a seemingly endless nosedive as measured by steadily increasing unemployment and shrinking personal finances and access to credit, thousands of current and prospective college students and their families are facing the prospects of college dreams becoming just that.

“Once they’ve been admitted and realize how much it costs to go to school, our enrollment numbers might not reflect a 54 percent increase,” says Shonda Gray, director of admissions and recruiting at Morgan State. Morgan charges $6,400 a year for in-state tuition and $14,900 for non-Maryland residents. Room and board is an additional $4,000.

The rubber should hit the road by June, says Gray. “That’s when I think you’ll see an increase in the community college numbers,” she says, referring to four-year college admits opting for less expensive two-year community college. At the end of the day, Morgan State hopes to see a total of 2,100 new clients enroll by the time school doors open next fall, says Gray. That goal includes 1,700 freshman and 400 transfer students.

Some combination of boosting financial aid where possible, getting packages together faster and educating parents and students about the safety of expanded federal aid programs have been key tools in nearly every school’s new strategy.

At Fort Valley State University in Georgia, where applications have risen significantly, the school has increased the number of merit-based President and Dean’s scholarships and developed new procedures to make the enrollment process run more smoothly. School officials used this spring break to mount a major tour of high schools across the state, says Terrance Smith, vice president of student affairs and enrollment. With tuition, room and board set at $13,000 a year, Smith considered Ft. Valley competitive and expects a “significant” enrollment increase on the heels of a 17.7 percent increase last year.

Xavier officials, meanwhile echo others who say the nation’s changing economic landscape is prompting them to engage in more financial education for understandably nervous parents and students.

“We have so many students that never accept their aid awards because their parents have warned them against going into debt or they view these funds as typical loans,” says Winston Brown, dean of admissions at Xavier. “We are working with our students to help them better understand this is an investment in their future and they are not likely to receive this type of support, under such flexible terms, again in their lifetimes.”

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