Jul 12, 2017

Questions colleges don’t always like to answer

The recent announcement of plans to drop four varsity sports from the University at Buffalo’s (UB)  roster of Division 1 offerings pretty much puts a face on what counselors and other admissions professionals have been warning about the impact of funding cuts on both public and private institutions.

UB recently revealed that men’s soccer, men’s swimming and diving, baseball and women’s rowing will no longer be sponsored. This decision affects 120 students currently on team rosters (30 other students on those rosters will graduate this year). Although UB’s athletes have been offered the opportunity to stay in school with scholarships intact, the reality is they won’t get to compete at the D1 level. And competition for athletes who have spent a lifetime honing skills is pretty fundamental.

For these athletes or department heads facing academic program cuts, it’s no secret that college administrators and boards are increasingly being asked to make hard choices as they struggle with demographic and economic realities in a battle for long-term survival and institutional health.

And a divide is opening between financially healthy colleges versus those that are not, making it imperative for students and their parents to understand how financial constraints affect colleges, application processes, and admissions decisions.

Given the current economic climate, here are some questions colleges don’t always like to answer:
  1. How has the admissions office been affected by budget cuts?
    Even in the face of increased numbers of applications to process, admissions budgets aren’t growing. As a result, admissions offices are making do with less. Glossy view books and travel allowances are becoming scarce, as colleges seek additional ways to trim budgets while continuing to respond to front office demands for more applicants. With tight budgets to manage, colleges are increasingly relying on enrollment management programs to guide and support the admission process, effectively allowing technology to take over recruitment and some elements of application review. As a result, students need to understand that their privacy is constantly under attack by colleges attempting to probe both qualifications and interest. Toward this end, seemingly benign third-party organizations seek to obtain and resell key pieces of information, ranging from standardized test scores to family income, to colleges hungry for data that can be fed into algorithms designed to assess credentials and guess at likelihood of enrollment. In other words, through skillful use of technology, admissions offices are not only saving money but also manipulating metrics important to ranking and outside perceptions of “quality”—both vital to long-term institutional health.
  2. Has the application process been affected?
    To gain better control over the process and factors affecting selectivity and “yield” (the percent of students accepting an offer of admission), colleges are experimenting with different early action and binding early decision plans. Rather than setting up a process that encourages a single windfall of applications late in the season, admissions offices are looking for a more even distribution of work from September to May. And the appeal of early decision candidates committed to attending at the front end of the process is undeniable for both management and yield. Some colleges find it more efficient to force hard decisions earlier by denying larger percentages of early applicants—it takes time and money to read and re-read applications. Others prefer keep all options on the table by rolling large numbers of applicants into the regular pool. And given uncertainties inherent in a process that indiscriminately recruits and makes it relatively easy to submit applications, colleges look for ways to cover all bets by enlarging and employing wait lists—secret weapons in the battle to improve yield and control investment in financial aid. Seeking an early understanding of policies and being aware of the institutional incentives behind these policies may help guide application strategies. But given the number of uncertainties affecting budgets, staffing and priorities, don’t be surprised if what you thought you knew is no longer true. It’s not unusual for colleges to make substantial changes in application procedures—sometimes late into the year. So feel free to ask the question.
  3. Are priorities changing in financial aid?
    While the new timeline imposed by an October 1 FAFSA start date and the use of “prior-prior year” income information for determining awards suggests a more sensible and timely approach to financial aid, the jury is still out as to how successful the new plan will be for both students and institutions. At the same time they are dealing with various logistical issues, colleges formerly boasting of “need-blind” admissions or “no loan” packaging are reassessing their policies to ensure adequate financial aid resources remain available to the greatest number of students. Most but not all colleges offer merit scholarships that are important recruitment tools in the process. But variations in the balance between grants and loans in financial aid packages make some colleges appear more generous than they really are. It’s not unusual for colleges to engage in “gapping” (not covering full need) when offering financial aid, but the gaps appear to be getting larger. And be aware that not all guarantee merit scholarships for four full years. To save money without harming published freshmen retention rates, colleges may not continue scholarships after two years—even if all academic requirements have been met. Although it really pays to be a savvy shopper before applying and committing to a school, keep in mind that financial aid offices ultimately hold all the cards and their incentive is to keep costs low while at the same time recruiting top prospects. Understanding the institution’s approach to financial aid from the very beginning could save disappointment later.
  4. Are budget cuts affecting programs?
    Ask Buffalo’s baseball players or Temple’s rowers or the swimmers at the University of Maryland why this may be important. While some cuts cannot be anticipated, others may be planned and colleges have a responsibility to make them public. Be aware that the question isn’t limited to sports. Responding to increased pressure to emphasize more marketable majors, colleges are re-configuring programs—cutting some and adding new opportunities. At a more basic level, colleges may be quietly increasing class size, making it more difficult to get some majors, relying more heavily on teaching assistants (TA's), or offering specific classes less often—even eliminating them altogether. Short of finding that a program or major has been done away with, students may experience difficulty finishing in four years if classes are overloaded or simply unavailable, especially in areas where coursework is highly sequenced. And if the prospect of transferring sometime in your undergraduate career doesn’t appeal, make sure the programs (including athletic) in which you are interested are on firm footing with the institution.
  5. Will there be changes in requirements for graduation?
    Sometimes this can work in your favor. Loyola University of Chicago reduced the number of credit hours required for graduation from 128 to 120. But because AP/IB or other outside college credits earned during high school can mean significant money both to you and the institution, take the time to see how these credits may be applied (toward graduation or specific majors) and ask if the college anticipates changes in these kinds of arrangements. For example, Dartmouth no longer grants credit for AP or IB examinations. Placement and some exemptions may be offered instead. In other words, Dartmouth can now count on four years of tuition payments from undergrads. And the questions can be even more complex involving credit for internships, co-ops or research. If the goal is to graduate in four years or less, it’s worth investigating if there are plans under consideration that might affect your ability to graduate on time.
  6. What is the impact on student services?
    Applicants don’t always take into account the real value of the student services component when considering colleges. As schools discover they can make money from room and board packages, students may find themselves limited by restrictive housing policies and meal plans. For lots of different reasons—including financial—colleges are limiting students to on-campus housing for more years. The more captive the audience, the less risk involved in building glamorous new facilities. But beyond day-to-day living, services also include everything from library or gym facilities and hours, to tech support, career advising, health/mental health services or academic support for writing centers and math labs. These should be “growing” operations, and if they aren’t, budget cuts in these areas might be concerning.
Because colleges won’t always volunteer the information, it’s important that you do some in-depth research and ask the questions necessary to understand potential game changers.

Make it your mission to test whether the college “experience” promised today will be there four years from now, and make sure the process by which you get there is clear.

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