Colleges Work Harder To Lure New Students

Part of a weeklong series on the impact of the economy on higher education

About This Series

This week, Morning Edition studies The New College Math: families and students who are recalculating how much they can spend during a recession; colleges trying to fill seats; and an expansion in federal aid that could determine for some whether they attend college at all.

A down economy usually means a bump in enrollment at colleges and universities: Applications tend to go up as job prospects go down. But in this recession, private colleges especially are finding themselves working harder to fill their freshman classes.

It's the season for high anxiety if you're a high school senior waiting to hear if you got in to college. But this year, the colleges are stressing as much as the kids.

"These are the days I wake up in the middle of the night and I think, 'Oh, no,' " says Richard Bischoff, the admissions director at the California Institute of Technology. Like many schools, Cal Tech is having to try harder this year to get students who've been accepted to actually enroll. Oftentimes that means sweetening their offers of financial aid.

"If a parent is laid off in early April, sometimes we can then step in with additional financial support for that family," Bischoff says. "So we're really stepping it up to get out there."

Bischoff says he's also stepping up the sales pitch. A $50,000 per year private school tuition — even for such a prestigious place as Cal Tech — is a harder sell this year to students who may also have the option of paying less than half that to go to a state school like the University of California, Berkeley.

"We are focusing more on that value question, rather than what we can sometimes do, which is say, 'Trust us, we're Cal Tech,' " he says.

Smaller Schools Feeling The Pinch

Schools with a recognizable brand name and a big endowment, like Harvard or Yale, can offer free or heavily discounted tuition. But the challenge is much greater for smaller schools without the big bucks or the big name.

Becker College, a small liberal arts school in Worcester, Mass., has enlisted its freshmen to run a phone bank to urge students to apply, and if they've been accepted, to enroll. Becker has already frozen tuition this year and increased aid, but administrators say what tends to be most persuasive is a personal call from a student.

"I think students are not so much flattered, but feel welcome and important to the school when we take the time to make the connection, instead of a form letter," says Debby Gallo, Becker's associate director of admissions. "We have to make them feel important. They are important to us."

For many students, feeling the love is all it takes. But it is, perhaps, a sign of the hard times that some students are finding the attention to be too much of a good thing.

"There was one school which has contacted me probably once a week from October to December," says Marc Phillips, a high school senior from New Jersey. "They kept sending me e-mails and e-mails and calling my house at 6 p.m., when I'm having dinner, and telling me, 'Marc, we'll waive the fee. Mark, you don't need any letters of recommendation.' And it just really got on my nerves."

Phillips ended up sending his deposit to Ithaca College. That school is having alumni write cheery letters to parents this year. But rather than harass students, admissions director Gerard Turbide says he's inviting them to join an online Facebook-like community, where they can discuss anything from financial aid to cafeteria food — with faculty, administrators and current students.

"What we see is that more often than not, students are talking each other into a higher level of confidence that Ithaca College really may very well be the right place for them," Turbide says.

Still, colleges say it's extremely difficult this year to predict how many students who are offered a spot will opt to come, because most of the old indicators are no longer reliable.

Barmak Nassirian with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers says many schools are admitting more students just in case, but he says that's a high-stakes gamble for schools that have to hit their sweet spot and enroll just the right number of students.

"At smaller institutions, even a margin of 10 paying students could be the difference between operating in the black or in the red," Nassirian says.

And too many or too few freshmen this year may continue to be a problem until that class graduates in 2013 — which may be long after the economy recovers.

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