Aug 14, 2009

Melt Down

It’s no secret that colleges are getting a little nervous about the start of school this year. As reported by The Washington Post, otherwise self-confident institutions such as Virginia Tech or the University of Maryland hedged bets against students suddenly coming down with a serious case of buyer’s regret by admitting a few extra students to their incoming freshman classes. In fact, according to a survey (subscription required) conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, 3.1% of public institutions and 8.7% of private schools admitted more students this year than last. And, as many as one-third accepted late applications or extended their recruiting cycles to lure a few more applicants.

Evidently colleges have cause to be worried about this year’s summer melt, or the slow erosion of class numbers by students deciding to go for other (possibly cheaper) alternatives or those who have decided to postpone or possibly forego college altogether. Because the economy stinks, college applicants and their families are becoming better consumers. They’re looking closer at the fine print and analyzing the impact of total cost of attendance on family budgets or long-term retirement options.

Until recently, colleges have been fairly cavalier about annual tuition increases, seeing opportunities to build newer and better facilities or expand campuses by buying up neighborhood property. The new student centers, dorms, libraries, and gyms are stunning. Christopher Newport’s new library and student center are fabulously appointed with marble and mahogany—worthy of a tour whether or not you have an interest in attending the school. Washington State University has an amazing pool designed in the shape of the state of Washington, and Virginia Commonwealth University has beautiful new dorms some of which offer private baths to undergraduates!

But times have changed and many projected building plans are on hold. Cost-cutting is now more in vogue with colleges trying to find creative ways to save money while retaining educational standards and not infringing on the overall college experience. According to a survey conducted by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU)

• 53.5 percent froze salaries

• 46.8 percent froze new hiring

• 43.7 percent restricted staff travel

• 37.7 percent slowed down current construction/renovation projects

• 30.6 percent delayed maintenance

• 28.5 percent gave smaller than usual salary increases

• 27.5 percent increased tuition less than anticipated

• 19.0 percent laid off staff (non-faculty)

• 16.9 percent cut salaries/benefits

• 15.5 percent canceled planned construction/renovation projects

• 7.0 percent laid off faculty

• 4.6 percent froze tuition levels

• 4.2 percent cut student services

• 3.9 percent cut academic programs

A more recent survey conducted by Yaffe & Co. suggests that two-thirds of private colleges plan to freeze salaries and 53% are cutting benefits. About 9% plan to reduce pay.

It’s a balancing act for colleges. Summer melt could become more of a flood if prospective undergraduates perceive budget cuts as diminishing the total value of their experience. Turning off the fountains might save money but it makes a lousy impression on anyone getting ready to invest thousands of dollars in a college education.

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