Colleges face a tougher market
Tighter funds, pool of grads are factors
CAPITAL REGION Ned Jones has worked in admissions at Siena College for more than two decades, and he believes that convincing families of the value of a Siena education has never been harder.
“It’s an incredibly challenging market,” said Jones, who serves as vice president for enrollment management at Siena College, a four-year private college in Loudonville. “It’s as demanding and competitive of a market as I’ve experienced.”
Loss of wealth caused by the recession, combined with the rising cost of college, has made families more concerned about affordability and warier of commitment. But those anxieties have not impacted the size of Siena’s incoming freshman class. The school will enroll about 770 students this fall, an increase of between 25 and 30.
Siena was forced to accept a higher percentage of applicants to fill its 2013-2014 freshman class, Jones said. The school admitted about 56 percent of 9,435 applicants, up from about 50 percent.
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollment fell 2.3 percent in the spring of 2013. This decline occurred mainly at for-profit and community colleges, but a recent New York Times article suggests that traditional four-year colleges are likely to see their enrollment numbers dip in the coming academic year.
“The most competitive colleges remain unaffected, but gaining admission to middle-tier institutions will most likely get easier,” the Times article said.
While private four-year nonprofit colleges saw spring enrollment grow about 0.5 percent from the previous year, enrollment at four-year public colleges and universities shrank about 1.1 percent. Enrollment at for-profit four-year schools fell about 8.7 percent, and enrollment at two-year public schools fell 3.6 percent.
A sampling of colleges in the Capital Region suggests that local schools are figuring out how to fill, and sometimes even increase the size of, their incoming freshman classes.
“Our enrollment has been steady,” said Mary Lou Bates, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Skidmore College, a private four-year college in Saratoga Springs. “What’s fluctuated is the size of our applicant pool.”
This year, Skidmore received a record-breaking number of applications — 8,300, a 40 percent jump from the previous year.
Bates attributed the jump to an improving economy, but also to other, less tangible factors, such as the admission office’s new website and being ranked ninth on a 2012 Newsweek magazine list of the country’s happiest schools.
“Most of the colleges I talk to are schools like us, and we all had healthy application pools,” Bates said. “We had a great year last year.”
Skidmore’s applicant pool also spiked in 2008, when Skidmore saw 7,400 students apply for admittance, then declined to about 6,000 over the next several years.
The college's enrollment has remained flat, with between 650 and 665 new students arriving on campus each fall, Bates said. She said that this year, Skidmore admitted about 35 percent of applicants, compared with 41 percent in 2012 and 29 percent in 2008.
Union College’s enrollment has also been consistent, with between 560 and 570 freshmen arriving on campus each fall.
What has changed is the school’s admit rate — the percentage of applicants admitted. This year, the college admitted 37 percent of 5,700 applicants — the lowest percentage in the small, private liberal arts school’s history, down from an rate that was “north of 40 percent,” according to Matt Malatesta, vice president for admissions, financial aid and enrollment at Union.
“We’re increasingly competitive,” Malatesta said. “For the past two years, our classes have been a little bigger than the previous two years. We’ve had a lot of applicants.”
Enrollment at the University at Albany has also remained fairly steady.
Final figures for this fall were unavailable, but the school had about 17,316 graduate and undergraduate students on campus in fall 2012, an increase from the 17,142 students enrolled on campus in fall 2011.
These numbers will likely hold steady this year, as the school’s applicant pool has been on the rise: About 21,574 students applied for fall admission to the University at Albany, up from 21,178 in 2012. According to Michael Parker, a spokesman for the university, UAlbany has received more than 20,000 applications a year for the past seven years.
One big concern for Capital Region admissions officers are the changing demographics of the Northeast. The region is experiencing a decline in population, which means that there will be a smaller pool of high school graduates to draw upon.
“Most of our students attend college within three hours of home,” Jones, of Siena, said. “The demographics in the Northeast are working against us.”
Another concern is the high cost of college.
“Families are experiencing a great deal of worry about how to pay for college,” Jones said. “They’ve been battered by the recession.” The home equity many families once tapped into to fund higher education vanished in the financial collapse, he said.
According to a report released earlier this month by Sallie Mae, more families are using grants and scholarships to fund college than any other source of funding, and parents have reduced the share they contribute toward their children’s college education.
Today, scholarships and grants pay for 30 percent of college costs, up from 25 percent four years ago, according to the report, while the average amount of aid has grown from $4,859 in 2009 to $6,355 in 2013. Parents now fund about 27 percent of college costs, down from 2010’s peak funding of 37 percent.
Jones said more families are deciding whether to apply to a particular college based on “sticker price,” even though the majority of students will receive some form of financial aid that reduces the cost of college for them. He said nearly 80 percent of Siena’s students receive need-based financial aid, which is awarded based on a family’s ability to pay for college, rather than merit.
“We’re very conscious of the fact that we’re serving a population that might not perceive college as affordable,” Jones said. “The conversation has to be about value.”
Malatesta said that families are paying increasing attention to value when selecting a college to attend.
“Our tuition is high, but we think the investment is worthwhile,” Malatesta said, adding that about 60 percent of Union students receive some form of financial aid. The school’s tuition, room and board, and student fees come to $58,248 for the 2013-2014 academic year.