Colleges are the Ones Fearing Rejection Letters

USA Today

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
April 1, 2009

For college-bound students, it’s time to make decisions — and to navigate a transformed landscape where acceptances and wait-list status might have different implications than they did just a year ago.

Decision letters being sent out this week reflect the worries of administrators, who fear admitted applicants may hesitate to commit in this climate of economic uncertainty. Private colleges especially are preparing for lower than normal matriculation rates by accepting more applicants, expanding wait lists and bolstering efforts to woo admitted students, says the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Four-year colleges “are attempting to hedge their bets as best they can, (in case) students simply downshift and opt for a less expensive option,” says Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

To secure their futures, schools are courting applicants with a previously unseen intensity:

  • Santa Clara University has enlisted its president, provost and 400 alumni volunteers to phone all admitted students and encourage them to enroll.
  • The College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn. (for women) and Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. (for men) doubled their joint transportation budget this year to $50,000 to fly in more than 160 admitted students from across the country for campus visits.
  • Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Va., this year has doubled (from five last year to 10) the number of local receptions it’s sponsoring around the state for admitted students.
  • Every student admitted to California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif., is expected to get a note from someone with a common interest or geographic background.

Not all schools are worried about enrollments next fall. California community colleges, for instance, fear the opposite: A glut of new students may mean some get turned away. Ivy League universities with generous financial aid programs expect strong turnouts. Flagship public universities, such as the University of Washington in Seattle and University of Texas in Austin, are more selective as they manage a surge of applications from value-seekers.

The right fit and right price

But in a year marked by layoffs and lost college savings, administrators say, enrollment predictions at most schools aren’t worth much. More than 90% of respondents to an online survey of 593 teens in February said they were revising college plans to favor less expensive schools. Even some public colleges are admitting more students in case large numbers opt not to enroll, says Tom Taylor, vice president for enrollment at Ball State University, which has not adjusted admission criteria.

Before this year, choosing a college “was more about finding the right academic fit, social fit and which community you liked best,” says Katherine Cohen, CEO of IvyWise.com, co-sponsor of the online survey. “Now, how you’re going to pay for that fit is just as important.”

Navigating this new environment requires updated strategies, experts say. When actively courted by a college, students may need extra effort to stay focused on evaluating which school is the best fit, says Jane Shropshire, a college admissions consultant in Lexington, Ky.

“It can really turn one’s head to get a call from a department head or the president of an institution and make one think: ‘Wow. This is really a remarkable level of attention,’ ” Shropshire says. But, she says, prospective students need to ask current students “whether this is the kind of school where this lavish attention will continue.”

Another issue: whether to negotiate for a bigger financial aid package. Families increasingly believe they can bargain for a better deal, Nassirian says. But unless a student’s situation has recently changed, such as if a parent got laid off, he says there’s no point. “It’s no more realistic than to go to CVS and negotiate the price of cough syrup,” he says.

Others disagree. Both Cohen and Shropshire say their clients have often met with success when they’ve compared financial aid offers and asked a school to beef up its award. Becker College Dean of Admissions Karen Schedin says a family recently faxed its award offer from a similar school in a bid to get more money from Becker. She says Becker likely will respond with a better offer – maybe $1,000 or $2,000 higher.

“They are bargaining,” Schedin says. “Hopefully, if we can adjust it a little, this family will say ‘good enough’ and come.”

More persuasion, opportunity

In some cases, students appreciate schools’ efforts. Kurt Roscoe of Ridgefield, Conn., went in February to a new type of reception on Becker’s campus, for admits interested in majoring in computer-game design. The event helped persuade him to enroll.

“Students majoring in game design were there, and they explained that students in game design are rather tight-knit and stick together,” Roscoe says. “That made me feel a lot better, because usually … you have to worry about bullying or getting looked down on because of your (game-design) major. I didn’t really feel that I’d have that problem at Becker.”

Students on wait lists, meanwhile, need to be aware they’re part of a school’s insurance policy, Shropshire says. Wagner College in New York City, for instance, has increased its list to 140 names, up from about 85 last year. But while the school may put more students in limbo, wait lists may also lead to more opportunities than in years past.

“My college counselors think this year I have a better chance of getting off the list because of what’s going on with the economy and kids not being able to afford the tuition and other costs,” says Meredith Bates, a high school senior in Bethesda, Md.

USA TODAY’s Mary Beth Marklein contributed to this report.