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Colleges Worry About Declining Enrollments, But You Should Sense Opportunity Amid the Turmoil

Today’s New York Times includes an article about worried admissions officers across the land, especially at private colleges, who are noticing steep declines in the numbers of applications.  Conventional wisdom has it that the financial aid picture is so bad that students dare not dream of attending a private school for fear of being unable to afford it.

While it is true that some of the credit options for parents are a bit sketchy, college still have plenty of financial aid to give away–and perhaps fewer applicants to whom to give it.

What does this mean for you?  Well, it means that if you have played your cards right by applying to colleges that are both good fits for you and also likely to accept you, it’s altogether possible that your aid package may be sweetened as an incentive fo you to attend.

If admissions officers sense that they will have a hard time attracting good students, they may rejigger their aid offers in order to ensure that the size of their class does not decline.

It’s also possible that we will see a lot of movement on waiting lists this year, as colleges move to fill their classes in May.  This will primarily benefit students who are able to pay and who are not seeking large financial aid packages.

The students I really worry about are the ones who have applied to state colleges in the belief that this is the only place can afford.  Not only will classes be super-crowded at state colleges in the fall, but some will not be accepted.  And as state funding dries up, some public colleges are capping enrollment.  Some may actually accept fewer students in the past, leaving students who thought of their state college as a “safety” school are left hanging.

While it’s impossible to forecast all the craziness that this admissions season will bring, it’s important that students and their parents not lose their senses.  Good planning and a good strategy for admissions and financial aid will leave many folks with a variety of good options to choose from once those admissions letters come out in early April.

Mark Montgomery
College Counselor

Reader Interactions


  1. I disagree with this view. I could be that smaller, private colleges are viewed as unstable in this financial crisis. So, students will not apply to schools they feel can’t weather the storm. Instead, they will apply to huge schools that they perceive as stable. This is shown with the increase in application to Ivy League schools. The student, looking at schools like Harvard and Yale loose tons of money fears smaller schools are getting slaughtered in this mess.
    Though, it could be both factors that cause the decrease in apps to small private schools. What do you think?

  2. Hello, Burst, and thanks for your comment and question.

    You have a point in that a few smaller colleges are not going to weather the financial storm well at all. So there may be some hesitation on the part of some students to apply believing that only Harvard and Yale are “stable.” But I doubt very much that many applicants are keeping track of how Moody’s rates colleges’ bonds (I keep an eye on these). Most colleges are not in big financial trouble, despite the budget cuts, shrunken endowments, and unsettled times. The sailing is not going to be smooth.

    I would also point out that Yale and Harvard’s applications may be up, but that means their rejections will also be up. So where are those who are rejected likely to go to college? Furthermore, state universities are finding that they may have to cap acceptances, for fear of a tidal wave of matriculating students that they could never swallow. It will be interesting to see if private colleges really experience a decline in enrollments in the fall of 2009.

    Though I could be wrong, I’m not ready yet to announce the demise of private higher education in America due to the lousy current financial situation.

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