Chronicle of Higher Education: Enrollment Shortfalls Spread to More Colleges

Enrollment Shortfalls Spread to More Colleges
By Eric Kelderman MAY 20, 2019 

A broad swath of private colleges across the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions are expected to miss their enrollment goals for the fall semester. That growing trend now includes some institutions that have rarely, if ever, had to worry about filling classes.

Bucknell University, for example, expects that its freshman class this fall will be about 2 percent smaller than planned, or a total of roughly 960 students, said William T. Conley, its vice president for enrollment management.

That’s not a death sentence for the Pennsylvania institution, which admits just 30 percent of applicants. But it could be the proverbial canary in the coal mine for a segment of higher education that has, so far, been buffered by an abundance of students willing to pay a high price for an exclusive educational experience.

“I do get the sense that more than a handful of highly selective colleges missed their enrollment targets this year,” said Robert Massa, who still talks with enrollment professionals across the country after a 45-year career in financial aid and admissions. He retired from Drew University in February.

Ithaca College, which enrolls nearly 5,500 undergraduates, is larger and less selective than Bucknell, admitting about 70 percent of its undergraduate applicants. But the college, in upstate New York, will have some 175 fewer freshmen and $4.6 million less in tuition revenue than planned, said its president, Shirley M. Collado.

Several other college officials and higher-education consultants confirmed that they are seeing enrollment problems at numerous institutions.

The reasons for the enrollment shortfalls, said Massa and others, are complex and tied to several factors. Those include the declining number of high-school students across the regions, families’ increasing sensitivity to tuition and other costs, questions about the overall value of a college degree, and the ease with which students can apply to and consider multiple colleges.

Such forces have spurred a different kind of competition in higher education, in which students increasingly choose price over a preferred campus experience.

That means students and their parents are comparing one small, liberal-arts college not only with another but also with public colleges that may offer similar programs at a lower cost, Massa said.

The less difference parents see between the private colleges and the public ones, he said, the more likely they are to choose the less-expensive option.

A Broken Business Model

The pressures that Bucknell and other colleges are experiencing have already taken a toll on a number of smaller and lesser known institutions in the Northeast. Many have been trapped in a vicious cycle, seeking to counter declining enrollment by increasing the amount of institutional aid that they provide.

On average, private colleges now discount tuition by more than 50 percent for freshmen, according to the latest annual figures in a report from the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

But there’s a limit to that business model. Even if they attract more students, most colleges are getting less tuition money, the report said. In the 2017-18 academic year, net tuition revenue from freshmen fell 3.6 percent compared with the previous year.

In some cases, the business model has broken down entirely. Since 2018, several colleges in New England have shut their doors or announced plans to close, including the College of St. Joseph and Green Mountain, Mount Ida, Newbury, and Southern Vermont Colleges.

Years of declining enrollment was one factor that pushed Hampshire College to undertake a drastic plan this year to slash the Massachusetts institution’s operating expenses, in part by not admitting a full freshman class for the fall.

Some colleges are now taking broad steps to prevent a crisis, if possible. At Ithaca, the enrollment slide has been a catalyst for change and a new strategic plan, said Collado, the college’s president since 2017.

“The dip, as unfortunate as it is, presents an opportunity for a strategic shift that faculty and staff can own in a significant way,” she said in an interview. The goals will be to make the college more affordable and increase the diversity of the student body, she said.

That will require new sources of money, she said, such as finding uses for the campus during traditional down times, providing more-affordable housing and dining options for students, and increasing the number of adult learners and community-college transfers.

Nanci Tessier, senior vice president at the Art & Science Group, a consulting firm, said it’s not yet clear which colleges will emerge from the current trend as winners or losers. But they should not expect to overcome the challenge just by spending more on financial aid or conducting better marketing.

“There’s a tendency for institutions to say, We will market our way out,” she said. “That’s tactical, but redesigning programmatic offerings is the harder and more essential work to do.”

It’s Complicated

Conley, the vice president for enrollment at Bucknell, said for now it appeared that inadequate spending on student aid could account for his university’s enrollment shortfall. Bucknell, where the full cost of attendance is nearly $70,000 a year, had a discount rate of about 31 percent and underspent its financial-aid budget by about $1.2 million.

“We got pinched by colleges with a higher discount rate.”

But its peer competitors, including Colgate University, Lafayette College, and Lehigh University, had an average discount rate of closer to 40 percent, he said. “We got pinched by colleges with a higher discount rate,” he said. “It would have cost us more than $3.5 million to compete with a stronger financial peer group.”

The declining pool of traditional-age college students in some parts of the country is also changing which colleges Bucknell and other institutions compete with.

In the past a typical Bucknell applicant would apply to seven private colleges and just two public ones, Conley said. Now that student is applying to a dozen or more colleges, and just half are private.

As a result, Bucknell’s biggest competitor for students has become Pennsylvania State University, Conley said. More surprising, he said, the University of Delaware is one of the top five competitors, probably because it has a more-affordable engineering program.

“It’s not just about students’ ability to pay, but their willingness to pay.”

Tessier agreed. “It’s not just about students’ ability to pay,” she said, “but their willingness to pay. A smaller population has greater choices.”

“The nature of competition has changed and continues to change,” she said. “It used to be that students looked in a ‘category,’ but not anymore. They look across categories.”

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.

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