For Admissions Offices, a Spring of Uncertainty
Colleges work to convert mounds of applications into actual students ready to enroll
By BECKIE SUPIANO
It's still early in the admissions cycle — but not too early for colleges to be worried about yield.
Projecting yield, the percentage of admitted students who enroll, is a perennial concern for admissions deans. Their anxiety has only grown as technology and millennials' habits make it harder to anticipate the whims of 17-year-olds. In many ways, it looks like that trend will continue this year.
David A. Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, describes 2009 as "a typical admissions year — with a big asterisk."
That asterisk, of course, is the economy.
It is too soon to say exactly how the recession will shape admissions outcomes this spring, as most application numbers are still preliminary. Some admissions officials have expected that a greater number of students would apply to more colleges to hedge their bets — and shop for the best financial-aid package. And some admissions experts have speculated that tight economic times would raise the demand for less-expensive public colleges this year.
As in previous admissions cycles, however, generalizations are difficult. Indiana University at Bloomington, for one, has seen its applications go up this year — but so too have Augustana and Dartmouth Colleges, both private institutions. Courting would-be applicants, however, is only the first step. Now those colleges are working hard to translate an uptick in applicants into a strong incoming class.
Like many of his colleagues, W. Kent Barnds, vice president for communication and enrollment at Augustana, in Rock Island, Ill., didn't know what to expect this year. Augustana, with a student body of about 2,500, has rolling admissions, and so far the college is running about 9 percent ahead in applications. "We're in, I think, a firm position at this particular point," Mr. Barnds says.
But with a cloud of economic uncertainty hanging overhead, the college is taking no chances when it comes to yield. Augustana usually sees a yield of 28 percent to 29 percent, but it is planning for about 27 percent this year, in an effort to be "as cautious as possible," Mr. Barnds says. The college plans to admit 275 to 300 more students than usual to make up for the anticipated dip.
Augustana is taking other steps as well. For the first time, it hired a consulting firm, George Dehne & Associates, to call its first 1,000 accepted students to promote an event for them on the campus. The firm also asked the accepted students how important financial aid was to their college decision and where Augustana ranked in their list of possible colleges. Augustana made those inquiries, in part, "to reassure ourselves" that the private college remains a top choice for students who may be more worried about cost than usual, Mr. Barnds says. The move also allows the admissions staff to focus on those who are most likely to attend.
Like other colleges, Augustana is trying to give extra financial help to students this year. The college set tuition in October instead of waiting until January, and its tuition increase was the lowest in 25 years. It is also giving a $1,000 travel scholarship, renewable for four years, to each new out-of-state student who made a campus visit during the application process.
Augustana also offers an unusual financial-aid opportunity: departmental scholarships for incoming students. The weekend of January 24, accepted applicants were invited to the campus to compete for that money by sitting for interviews or taking subject tests. Despite cold weather, 312 students participated, an even stronger turnout than expected.
"It shows families are very interested in scholarship options," Mr. Barnds says.
The college has not awarded all the scholarships yet, but several families made enrollment deposits during their weekend visits.
Before this admissions cycle began, Indiana University at Bloomington was expecting about a 7-percent increase in applications. But so far, the university — which has a February 1 application deadline — has been running 9 percent to 11 percent ahead of last year. Its applicant pool is also academically stronger, and more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse than those of recent years, says Roger J. Thompson, vice provost for enrollment management.
Part of that diversity could be the result of the university's 21st Century Scholar Covenant, a student-aid program that began three years ago as an add-on to an existing state program. The state of Indiana covers the cost of tuition at its public colleges for eligible lowto moderate-income residents, and the university created the covenant program to cover the remaining cost of attendance. In the program's first year, the university had about 200 scholarship recipients, and this year it had 400.
Despite the promising applicant pool, Mr. Thompson thinks he will have his work cut out for him when it comes to predicting yield. His office runs three yield projections each year, one based on the average of the last three years, one that is higher, and one that is lower. They usually begin this modeling in December, but this year they started a month early and are running projections twice a week instead of once.
Like his counterparts at other public universities, Mr. Thompson is preparing for an increase in yield for in-state students and a decrease for out-of-state ones. "It becomes harder sometimes to make the commitment to out-of-state tuition and fees," he says. Though Indiana's yield predictions are usually right on target, Mr. Thompson says, he doubts that will be true this year.
For that reason, the university is working especially hard to make sure that many of its accepted students enroll. At a big university like Indiana, much of this work consists of personalized attention that makes the transition to the campus feel more comfortable.
For example, last year Indiana began sending accepted students a postcard bearing the image of a Jeep Wrangler. If the student looks closely, she will notice that the car's tire cover features the interlocking I and U of the university's logo. The license plate is her own first name. The bumper sticker is for her high school. And the road sign in front of the Jeep displays the distance between her hometown and the university.
Indiana is also stepping up its telephone blitz, in which current students call accepted ones. Last year the university called only some students, but it is expanding its list this year because of worries about yield.
Even as Mr. Thompson focuses on crafting the incoming class, he is keeping his eye on those already on the campus. The university didn't see a dip in spring enrollment, but Mr. Thompson is wary of what might happen this fall.
"Families are just in a terrible squeeze," he says.
Maria Laskaris and her staff at Dartmouth College have nearly finished counting applications, which were due January 1. Somewhat to her surprise, the college is running about 9 percent ahead of last year, says Ms. Laskaris, dean of admissions and financial aid.
"I think everybody went into the fall thinking because of the economy and the global economic crisis we'd see a depression of applications at expensive private colleges," she says.
The college also saw a rise in applications for early decision, though conventional wisdom says students won't apply early when they are worried about getting enough financial aid.
Dartmouth's recent move to no-loan student-aid packages may help explain its high application numbers. The college has need-blind admissions, so Ms. Laskaris doesn't yet know the financial standing of students in her applicant pool. But the college has widely promoted its no-loan policy this year, and she says families seem eager to hear about it.
Usually, when admissions representatives talk with groups of parents, no one asks about aid, Ms. Laskaris says. If anything, a parent might approach the representative one-on-one after the session. But this year was different: The first question was always about the college's financial aid, and parents asked about it in front of one another.
Turnout at admissions sessions on the road was also stronger than usual, while campus visits at Dartmouth were down. The college is an out-of-the-way destination for most families, and Ms. Laskaris thinks many skipped the road trip when travel costs spiked during the summer, opting instead to attend information sessions near home.
Unlike many others in enrollment management, Ms. Laskaris isn't worried about her yield this year. "The strength of our financial-aid program gives me confidence we'll have stability in our yield," she says.
In previous years, Dartmouth has lost some accepted applicants to public colleges with lower tuition. But this year, she says, the college's financial aid, combined with the state budget cuts those competitors now face, could work in Dartmouth's favor.
And if current students are any indication, most incoming freshmen should be all right financially. When Dartmouth sent out its winter bills, it included information on how to get additional financial aid in case any students had a major change in circumstances, like a parent losing a job. So far it hasn't seen more requests than it has in recent years.
The economy, Ms. Laskaris says, could make for "a very challenging year for yield at many places." But from what she can tell, Dartmouth will not be one of them.