Enrollment Shortfalls Spread to More Colleges

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Published by The Chronicle of Higher Education

Nanci Tessier, senior vice president at the Art & Science Group, a consulting firm, said it’s not yet clear which colleges will emerge from the current trend as winners or losers. But they should not expect to overcome the challenge just by spending more on financial aid or conducting better marketing.

“There’s a tendency for institutions to say, We will market our way out,” she said. “That’s tactical, but redesigning programmatic offerings is the harder and more essential work to do.”

Conley, the vice president for enrollment at Bucknell, said for now it appeared that inadequate spending on student aid could account for his university’s enrollment shortfall. Bucknell, where the full cost of attendance is nearly $70,000 a year, had a discount rate of about 31 percent and underspent its financial-aid budget by about $1.2 million.

But its peer competitors, including Colgate University, Lafayette College, and Lehigh University, had an average discount rate of closer to 40 percent, he said. “We got pinched by colleges with a higher discount rate,” he said. “It would have cost us more than $3.5 million to compete with a stronger financial peer group.”

The declining pool of traditional-age college students in some parts of the country is also changing which colleges Bucknell and other institutions compete with.

In the past a typical Bucknell applicant would apply to seven private colleges and just two public ones, Conley said. Now that student is applying to a dozen or more colleges, and just half are private.

As a result, Bucknell’s biggest competitor for students has become Pennsylvania State University, Conley said. More surprising, he said, the University of Delaware is one of the top five competitors, probably because it has a more-affordable engineering program.

Tessier agreed. “It’s not just about students’ ability to pay,” she said, “but their willingness to pay. A smaller population has greater choices.”

“The nature of competition has changed and continues to change,” she said. “It used to be that students looked in a ‘category,’ but not anymore. They look across categories.”

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