Decline in College Enrollment Numbers Strain Budgets, Operations

After a sustained boom in numbers, college enrollment for the 2012-13 academic year has declined by 2% — the first decline in close to two decades. And next year is likely to bring even more bad news for colleges and universities across the country already struggling amid continuing economic slowdown and falling government funding. Although last year’s drop was borne mostly by for-profit schools and community colleges, the decline is likely to become more widespread across the higher education sector.

The New York Times’ Richard Perez-Pena is reports that despite the fact that both federal government and the states have expanded efforts to get more of their high school graduates into college, the total college-age population is on the decline. This decline would have likely come to light before now, but enrollment numbers have been artificially boosted a poor job market that drove more people to seek refuge in continued education.

Hardest hit are likely to be colleges that do not rank among the wealthiest or most prestigious, and are heavily dependent on tuition revenue, raising questions about their financial health — even their survival.

“There are many institutions that are on the margin, economically, and are very concerned about keeping their doors open if they can’t hit their enrollment numbers,” said David A. Hawkins, the director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which has more than 1,000 member colleges.

The most competitive colleges remain unaffected, but gaining admission to middle-tier institutions will most likely get easier.

Schools that depend on tuition payments for a greater proportion of their operating budgets are already showing strain as high prices raise questions about whether a college education remains a can’t-miss investment for everyone. Loyola University in New Orleans and St. Mary’s College in Maryland provide stark examples; the number of students who accepted a spot at either school was nearly 30% below estimates. The unexpected drop meant not only a bigger, more personal push by schools’ faculty and administrators to convince students to enroll, but also resulted in last-minute budget and program cuts.

Many colleges traditionally round out their classes with a small number of students admitted after May 1, often taken from their waiting lists, and miscalculations as big or as damaging as those by St. Mary’s and Loyola are rare. But consultants hired by families to help with the admissions process say that this spring and summer, they have seen more colleges actively hunting for students, reaching out to those who had turned them down, or even to students who had never applied.

“After May 1, I got e-mails from three or four colleges saying, ‘We’ve still got spots, and we’re looking for people to fill them,’ and I don’t remember getting any in the past,” said Lisa Bleich, an admissions consultant in Westfield, N.J.