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Will They Come?

Colleges are anxious to see if new recruiting and retention efforts can stem rising tide of ‘economic dropouts.’

When Delaware State University officials tallied their recruitment, admissions and acceptances in early August, it looked as if this fall would bring the school some relief from the economic bullet that began shaking college enrollments last year.

“We came in over all our projected numbers — acceptances, confirmations of intent to attend, deposits,” Delaware State Executive Director of Admissions Germaine Scott-Cheatham says.

Much to the school’s surprise, only 825 of the nearly 1,000 freshman students who confirmed their enrollment with a deposit showed up for orientation. “And that may not hold,” Scott-Cheatham says.

“We expect some melt,” Scott-Cheatham says, referring to the loss of students in the final days of fall enrollment as the deadlines approach to settle all financial requirements. Based on the falloff, she’s no longer sure the school will meet its overall enrollment goal of 3,500 students.

Delaware State is one of many schools wrestling with the ills of a troubled economy that is forcing thousands of students to reassess their college education plans, prompting some to pare them back and others to drop out.

Depending upon the extent of the enrollment decline this fall (numbers should firm up at most schools by mid-September), the falloffs could force some cash-strapped schools to make more cuts in their budgets. Many, like Fisk University, Spelman College, Tennessee State University, and Xavier University of New Orleans, have made cuts in the past year as all sources of income — tuition, contributions, investment income — have evaporated.

To hold the line on enrollment declines this fall, schools have tried to find innovative ways to help students. Xavier waived its on-campus housing fees for several students with demonstrated hardships.

“Multiple families came in for financial aid,” Xavier spokesman Warren Bell says. “If it was a make or break (situation), every time we did everything we could.” Their efforts appeared to have paid off — 765 freshmen showed up this fall, exceeding the school’s goals.

Even with its extra efforts, Bell said many prospective students dropped from the school’s radar upon receipt of their financial aid letters, deciding college was just too expensive in light of the economy and their deteriorating personal finances.

Like many schools across the country, Spelman began feeling cracks in its enrollment glass last winter. It stepped up recruiting, admitted more students and worked more closely with students in the walk-up months. Despite its best efforts, the tough economy appeared to best the school as often as it succeeded in keeping a student.

“We have lots of rising juniors and sophomores who are really struggling,” says Arlene Cash, vice president for enrollment management at Spelman. “We have a number of students saying ‘we may not be able to come back.'” Cash expected freshman enrollment to rise by only a few dozen this year to about 559 students and overall enrollment to be about 2,100.

Spelman has helped some students, especially the talent stream from hard-hit Detroit, by using contributions to its Starfish Fund, a special aid fund for Spelman students. In other cases, as is true in normal times but more so now, need is outstripping aid.

Samara Brown, a 19-year-old psychology/ pre-med major who finished her freshman year at Spelman this spring, is one of those students who will not return. It just wasn’t in the financial cards, says Brown, one of five children.

Brown got a private loan co-signed by her parents to finance her first year of college. She couldn’t do the same this fall, so she transferred to St. Augustine College in North Carolina, not far from her home. She’ll stay with her parents this year, saving some $10,000 in room-and-board costs.

“It was a really tough decision,” says Brown, who says she cried many days as she pondered the hard choices, or lack of them, and the economic realities that caused her original plans to implode. “But, I had to do what I had to do.” Scott-Cheatham says the enrollment falloffs stem from a variety of factors. “We’re seeing sticker shock to people being laid off,” says Scott-Cheatham, noting that 70 percent of her incoming class are firstgeneration college students. In some cases, many prospective and returning students got financial aid letters based on 2008 tax returns that now have little relationship to real-time situations.

Since those Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms were filed, many households have been hit with layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts or some combination of all three that have dramatically changed their fi- nancial status. Some people have sought a review of their financial aid letters, in light of more recent developments. Many have given up for now.

In the meantime loans are not being approved and people who could co-sign for a loan last year can’t this year. Summer work for students also dried up this year as older, out-of-work adults took many of those jobs.

“Everybody’s sweating,” Scott-Cheatham says, “trying to be as creative as possible.”

Not every college is having a tough go at it. Díne College in Arizona experienced an increase of 400 freshman students this fall, the largest jump in three years. Spokesman Ed McCombs says the school put more effort this year into recruitment and marketing but was still overwhelmed with the final results. “Dorms are filled to capacity, and we’ve opened up new classes,” he said, noting school officials are at a loss in explaining the surge in enrollment. “We’re hopeful it will last.”

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