Whoops, We've Got Too Many Freshmen

With families strapped for money and financial aid harder to come by, pricey private colleges were expecting a lot fewer undergraduate students this fall. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore was so sure of this that it decided to accept more students than usual. Turns out, the school's estimate was way off and it's now scrambling to accommodate the extra students.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Well, the economy still on the ropes - families strapped for money and financial aid harder to come by. A lot of private colleges were expecting to have empty seats this fall. At least one survey predicted a 5 percent drop in freshman enrollment.

But as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, the students have shown up in droves.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: School officials at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore expected a lot fewer students this fall, so they admitted more than they usually do. But when they saw how many students confirmed they were coming, they realized they had totally miscalculated.

Ms. CAROL MOHR (Housing and Dining Services, Johns Hopkins University): The first thing that we heard was somewhere between 60 and 100 students. And that was really a lot.

SANCHEZ: Carol Mohr, the university's director of housing and dining services, says that was 60 to 100 more freshmen than they had planned for. She knew she had to scramble.

Ms. MOHR: We need to house the students who are coming. So we take a big, deep breath and think, OK, this is going to be a very interesting summer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SANCHEZ: By late summer, the housing office had found housing for 115 extra students. The university leased a small bed and breakfast hotel near campus, reopened a dorm that was due for renovation, and squeezed an extra student or two into most rooms.

(Soundbite of a ringing phone)

Unidentified Woman #1: AMR II Housing Office. This is Katie. How can I help you?

SANCHEZ: Today, the housing office is fielding calls about last-minute dorm repairs but no big problems to speak of, considering that the biggest freshman class ever, 1,350 students, has now settled in.

Unidentified Woman #2: Good morning. Just keep going. Try to sit towards the front.

SANCHEZ: At this week's orientation, students were, for the most part, relieved.

Yen Sang Tang(ph) is a freshman from Singapore.

Mr. YEN SANG TANG (Freshman): The only thing I think that has affected us so far is, from what I've heard, is that if we do have roommate problems or anything like that, it wouldn't be as easy to switch out or to swap roommates.

SANCHEZ: Brianna Dance(ph) is grateful that the university has hired several adjunct professors so freshmen courses won't be overcrowded.

Ms. BRIANNA DANCE (Freshman): I was concerned at first, but I kind of got all of the classes that I wanted to take this semester. And also, they've been talking to us throughout this entire orientation process about how to add and how to drop, how to sit in on a professor's class and kind of talk to him, get to know them if you want to get into a class this semester.

SANCHEZ: Still, one question remains: In this day and age when college admissions is down to a science, how could Johns Hopkins University's enrollment projections have been so wrong?

Bill Conley is dean of enrollment and academic services.

Mr. BILL CONLEY (Dean of Enrollment and Academic Services): So what happened? Why did we not predict yield correctly? We anticipated that in particular, families that had no need would enroll at a lower rate, that they'd just say, maybe you think we can afford it, but we can't.

SANCHEZ: It was absolutely the wrong assumption, says Conley. Wealthy kids who could afford Johns Hopkins' $54,000 tuition - room and board - showed up in record numbers.

What happened at Johns Hopkins this year, experts say, is not an anomaly.

Mr. TONY PALS (National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities): Enrollment at private colleges is actually projected to increase slightly.

SANCHEZ: Tony Pals is with the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Mr. PALS: The predictive models that enrollment officers use simply weren't designed to account for the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. There has never been an admissions season as uncertain as this one.

SANCHEZ: And that uncertainty, says Pals, is likely to continue for at least two more years.

Mr. CONLEY: Two years in a row - we can't live with two years in a row.

SANCHEZ: Two more years of overenrollment is unthinkable, says Johns Hopkins' Bill Conley.

So it looks like the university's math department, which developed the school's model for predicting its enrollment, will have to come up with a better one.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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