Sep 24, 2014

Well over half the nation’s 4-year colleges struggle to fill classes

An amazing amount of publicity goes to a handful of increasingly selective colleges.

But despite what you read, last year was extremely challenging for a surprising number of colleges and universities trying to fill classes for fall of 2014.  

According to the 2014 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and Admissions Directors, 61 percent failed to meet enrollment goals by May 1—up from 60 percent the year before.  

Among private institutions responding to the survey, the situation was particularly grim.  For fall 2013, 59 percent reported not meeting targets.  This year, 71 percent fell short of enrollment goals.

“This has been a tough year in admissions,” explained Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, during a panel session at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) annual conference held last week in Indianapolis.

And in an interesting ethical twist, 32 percent of college admissions directors responding to the Inside Higher Ed survey reported that they continued to recruit students, who had already committed to attend other institutions, after May 1—a direct violation of NACAC’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice.

“The enrollment cycle now extends well into summer,” Jaschik added, while panel member David Hawkins, NACAC’s director of public policy and research, countered by suggesting fault possibly rests less with unethical admissions offices and more with unethical students who “double deposit.”

The annual Inside Higher Ed survey was conducted in conjunction with researchers from Gallup and collected information from 406 admissions directors.  Questions have evolved over the years with input from NACAC conference attendees at similar sessions during previous years.

Further confirming the pressure felt by admissions directors, Jaschik reported that 79 percent of those surveyed were concerned or very concerned about meeting next year’s enrollment goals.  Only five percent were not concerned at all. 
So how do the admissions professionals propose to fix the problem?  The results of the survey suggest that for many colleges, the top priority will be to recruit students who can bring money and/or prestige to the college. 

Asked about priority populations for the year ahead, 55 percent of the admissions directors agreed or strongly agreed that they would focus efforts on those who receive “merit” scholarships, a strategy used to lure outstanding students away from competing colleges.

But at the same time, directors expressed high levels of interest in strategies directed toward enrolling more “full pay” applicants including out-of-state and international students.  In fact, 57 percent of those representing private institutions indicated they will be targeting more attention on full-pay students.

Along the same lines, 53 percent of the publics and 63 percent of those representing private institutions agreed that international students will be the focus of recruitment efforts.  And among public institutions, 60 percent will be targeting additional attention on out-of-state students. 

As a corollary to the issue of finding students who can afford or are otherwise willing to incur debt to cover increasingly high tuition, admissions directors are surprisingly candid about their “gapping” policies.  Colleges “gap” admitted students by not giving them enough financial aid to enroll, which often results in students taking out high-interest loans to fill in the gap.

More than three-fourths (77 percent) of the directors believe they are losing potential applicants due to concerns about accumulating debt during college.  Yet, 39 percent of the publics and 72 percent of the private institutions practice gapping.

And most of the respondents think it’s just fine to gap—46 percent of the public institution directors and 75 percent of those from private institutions believe gapping is ethical.

So there’s good news and bad news for this year’s applicants.  The good news is that there are lots of colleges hungry to admit them for next year.  But the bad news is that most of these colleges are hoping for students with money in their pockets and won’t mind asking them to take on debt if funding isn’t immediately available.

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