September 29, 2020

College Enrollment Falls as Economy Recovers

College enrollment fell 2 percent in 2012-13, the first significant decline since the 1990s, but nearly all of that drop hit for-profit and community colleges; now, signs point to 2013-14 being the year when traditional four-year, nonprofit colleges begin a contraction that will last for several years. The college-age population is dropping after more than a decade of sharp growth, and many adults who opted out of a forbidding job market and went back to school during the recession have been drawn back to work by the economic recovery.

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.

Colleges fear that their high prices and the concern over rising student debt are turning people away, and on Wednesday, President Obama again challenged them to rein in tuition increases. Colleges have resorted to deeper discounts and accelerated degree programs. In all, the four-year residential college experience as a presumed rite of passage for middle-class students is coming under scrutiny.

The most striking signs of change came from Loyola University New Orleans and St. Mary’s College of Maryland. After the usual May 1 deadline for applicants to choose a college, Loyola and St. Mary’s each found that their admission offers had been accepted by about one-third fewer students than expected. Both institutions were forced to make millions of dollars in budget cuts and a late push for more enrollment.

Loyola made a flurry of calls to students who had been accepted but had decided to go elsewhere, and had even paid deposits to other colleges. Professors and administrators who usually are not involved in the process made calls, along with the admissions officers, “and we did invite them to see if there was more we could do with aid,” said Roberta Kaskel, the interim vice president for enrollment management.

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.

“I had a client who had committed to one school, and then changed her mind and said she wanted to go to the University of Pittsburgh, where she had also been accepted,” she said. “They weren’t actively looking for more, but they agreed to take her, when a few years ago, they would have said, ‘No, we don’t have any space.’ ”

This summer, Randolph College in Virginia sent letters to students who had not applied but had strong academic credentials, saying that they had “been selected for admission” in the fall, and offering them financial aid. Randolph’s case is unusual, in that it is expanding, but it shows the lengths colleges will go to, to meet their enrollment targets.

“This is the first time we’ve tried this particular approach,” said Mike Quinn, the vice president for enrollment management. “Sometimes offering these qualified students a more generous grant will prompt them to start a conversation with us.”

Don McMillan, an admissions consultant in Boston, said his office fielded calls this week from families in Saudi Arabia and Italy, hoping to find their children places for a school year that, in some cases, is just a month away.

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Obama Focuses on ‘Thriving Middle Class’ in Speech

In his first State of the Union address since winning re-election, Mr. Obama offered an expansive second-term agenda focused heavily on the economy and jobs, according to summaries of his proposals provided to reporters in advance of the speech. He also proposed new reductions in nuclear weapons, announced that the United States would enter into negotiations for a free trade agreement with the European Union, and promised a speedy withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

“It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many and not just the few,” Mr. Obama said, according to a copy of his remarks released ahead of the hourlong speech. “That it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation of ours.”

After delivering an assertive defense of liberal values in his second Inaugural Address last month, on Tuesday Mr. Obama detailed his vision for how to achieve those goals through a federal government that is actively engaged in the well-being of all Americans.

He credited the “grit and determination” of the American people for helping turn the economy around, saying that “we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger.”

The president argued for aggressive federal efforts to lift as many as 15 million people out of poverty by raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour from $7.25 an hour by the end of 2015. He also pushed for new investments in preschool programs as well as math and science education and community colleges to equip workers with new skills.

“Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty,” Mr. Obama said. “This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families. It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank, rent or eviction, scraping by or finally getting ahead.”

Despite raising the hopes of environmental activists in his Inaugural Address by calling for a robust effort to fight climate change, Mr. Obama did not call for a cap on carbon emissions on Tuesday. Instead, he pledged to increase the fuel efficiency of vehicles, double the use of renewable electricity generation and create a new energy security trust that would use oil and gas revenue from federal lands to finance clean energy research.

Immigration advocates had similar expectations about plans to overhaul the immigration system. Mr. Obama has said he favors changes that would eventually allow 11 million illegal immigrants to earn a path to citizenship, which he mentioned in the speech.

The president also urged Congress to approve a $50 billion “Fix It First” program of infrastructure improvements intended to repair and rebuild the roads, bridges and rail lines that are in the worst shape.

Mr. Obama, mindful of the debate over government spending, acknowledged that his agenda would cost money, but he said his proposals would not increase the deficit by “one single dime” because the federal budget would remain below caps that both parties agreed to during negotiations in 2011.

“It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth,” Mr. Obama said.

The president said he remained committed to reducing the budget deficit, but warned Republicans that he would support only what he called “balanced” efforts that included both spending cuts and tax increases, including the closing of tax loopholes for the wealthiest Americans and corporations.

He made it clear that he believed that Washington had already reduced the deficit by $2.5 trillion over a decade, using a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. That is more than halfway toward the $4 trillion goal that he and some Republicans have set. He urged lawmakers to put off the automatic cuts to military and domestic spending to avoid a new economic slump.

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