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We're going to be reporting all this week on what the recession means for colleges. Today, NPR's Tovia Smith looks at how the economic downturn has affected many private colleges.

TOVIA SMITH: 'Tis the season for high anxiety if you're a high school senior waiting to hear if you got into college. But this year, colleges are stressing as much as kids.

Mr. RICHARD BISCHOFF (Admissions Director at California Institute of Technology): These are the days I wake up in the middle of the night and I think, oh, no.

SMITH: That's the admissions director of the California Institute of Technology, Rick Bischoff. 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.

Mr. BISCHOFF: You know, if a parent is laid off in early April, sometimes we can then step in with additional financial support for that family. So we're really stepping it up to get out there.

SMITH: Bischoff says he's also stepping up the sales pitch. A $50,000 a 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 UC Berkeley.

Mr. BISCHOFF: We are focusing more on that value question, rather than what we can sometimes do, which is say, you know, trust us, we're Cal Tech.

SMITH: Schools with a recognizable brand name and a big endowment, like a Harvard or a 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.

Unidentified Woman # 1 (Student): Hi, Joanna, this is Jordan. I'm a student at Becker College. I was just calling to…

Unidentified Woman # 2 (Student): Hi. My name is Becca. I'm a student at Becker College…

Unidentified Woman #3 (Student): I'm calling from Becker College. I'm looking at your…

(Soundbite of cross talking of Becker College Freshman students running phone bank)

SMITH: Becker College, a small, liberal arts school in Worcester, Massachusetts, has enlisted its freshmen to run a phone bank to urge students to apply, and if they've been accepted, to enroll.

Unidentified Woman #4 (Student): Are you sure she doesn't want to come to Becker? Okay. Well, I really hope you reconsider.

SMITH: 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.

Unidentified Woman #5 (Student): I noticed that you're undecided. Yeah, actually, my personal major is psychology.

Ms. DEBBY GALLO (Becker's Associate Director of Admissions): And 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.

SMITH: Debby Gallo is Becker's associate director of admissions.

Ms. GALLO: You know, we have to make them feel important. They are important to us.

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

Mr. MARC PHILLIPS (High School Senior): There was one school which has contacted me probably once a week from October until December.

SMITH: Marc Phillips is a high school senior from New Jersey.

Mr. PHILLIPS: They kept sending me emails and emails, 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.

SMITH: Phillips ended up sending his deposit to Ithaca. That liberal arts college 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.

Mr. GERARD TURBIDE (Admissions Director, Ithaca College): What we see is that more often than not, students are talking each other into a higher level of confidence that, you know, Ithaca College really may very well be the right place for them.

SMITH: Still, colleges say it's extremely difficult this year to predict how many students who are offered a spot will opt to come. Most of the old indicators are less reliable.

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

Mr. BARMAK NASSIRIAN (American Association of Collegiate Registrars): At smaller institutions, even a margin of 10 paying students could be the difference between operating in the black or operating in the red. That's the problem.

SMITH: 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.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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