February 17, 2018

Waiting for Word on Admissions | From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

Harvard University recently completed its most selective admissions period ever, accepting only 7% of nearly 30,000 applicants. The news is likely similar at America’s most elite institutions. If your library serves any of the other 3,500 or more higher education institutions in this country, however, the admissions news may be less rosy. 

In fact, your admissions staff may be quite worried about what’s going to happen now that acceptance letters have been mailed and the decisions are in the hands of students and their families. There are enormous financial stakes in assembling the proper size class—just look at what happened at Beloit College, when a yield of 36 fewer students triggered the loss of 40 positions.

That’s why a recent report on the state of admissions caught my attention. From Longmire and Company, a consulting firm that specializes in enrollment management, the Report on the Impact of the Economy on College Enrollment is based on a survey of more than10,000 students planning to enroll in the fall of 2009 and their parents. The dire situation is described in the report’s first paragraph:

There is no doubt that the distressed state of the current economy is injecting a great deal of uncertainty among college-bound students and their parents with regard to college selection and, more fundamentally, their ability to pay. The key question for enrollment managers relates to how that uncertainty will impact upcoming enrollment, as well as retention of current students.

Here are a few findings:

  • Nearly half of the students and parents surveyed say their plans for college have either changed “dramatically” or “somewhat” because of current economic conditions.
  • When asked how their college plans may change as a result of the economy, the most commonly cited response (53%) was “enroll in a less expensive college” while 16% indicated that cost will be the “overriding factor” in their decisions.
  • In terms of the economy’s influence on application volume, 27% of respondents said they will submit fewer applications.
  • Approximately 45% of the households surveyed have multiple children enrolled in college. While 62% indicated that the students would return next term, 10% indicated that this decision might be impacted by economic factors.

What does it mean?
There’s no denying that many Americans are no longer interested in or capable of taking on enormous loans for the college of their choice. Like so many other economic decisions, real or perceived quality is taking a back seat to cost. 

At my own institution, a state-assisted private research university, the average undergraduate tuition is a modest $11,000 a year. Even so, no one is really sure what to expect. On one hand, the thinking is that our current students, many who borrow and work to afford tuition, will encounter difficulty with loans that will in turn force them to drop out or transfer to a community college. 

On the other hand, the institution may benefit from those students who previously would have enrolled at more costly but exclusive private colleges, and those who may transfer from those institutions for our less expensive tuition. For all this speculation, all we have right now is a bad case of uncertainty, and I suspect the situation is similar at institutions around the country.

Pay attention
While we busy ourselves with developing collections and delivering instruction sessions, the higher education industry is falling on harder hard times. Not a day goes by without multiple stories about layoffs, budget cuts, stalled projects, and other signs of the economy’s effect on higher education. There are occasional bright spots, such as an institution that is committed to new hires or the launching of an ambitious new program. 

But the positive news items are lost among the negative ones, and the recent uncertainty about admissions numbers makes this stream of stories all the more unsettling. If your academic library has somehow evaded retrenchment, consider yourself among the fortunate—for now. When those fall enrollment numbers roll in, we may experience shared pain like never before. We would be wise to pay attention to what is fast becoming a crisis of major proportions for higher education.

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.  For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his web site.

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