29 April 2009

A Buyer's Market For College Applicants

Story from the Detroit News

Economic uncertainty and the recession have created a buyer's market in college admissions this year, as high school seniors and their families shop around for the best financial aid and tuition deals, while colleges anxiously wait to see who chooses them.

ferris state business degreePublic university leaders say it's still too early to tell whether the increase in applications they've seen this spring will translate into more students in the fall, while community colleges statewide are predicting a bumper crop of new students.

"There's a huge wild card this year called the economy," said Kathy Orscheln, director of admissions at Eastern Michigan University. "These are tough choices for families to make. I'm not sure any of the old rules apply."

While the number of applications and admitted students is up this year at Eastern and other public universities, Orscheln is not cheering yet.

"In any other year, we would say that looks pretty good, and we can expect our (enrollment will) be healthy for the fall and probably up from last year. But with the ... economy, I'm not sure we can count on that."

Friday is the national enrollment deposit deadline that many colleges use as a gauge for their fall headcount, but typically students can still enroll or change their minds through the summer.

Jim Cotter, admissions director for Michigan State University, expects more admissions decisions will be made in this summer, as parents wait to see what happens with their jobs, economy and tuition increases.

"May 1 is really a milestone date, but this is not a typical year," Cotter said. "This is very different for all of us in higher education. We will be watching the numbers very closely."

Closer to home

The spiraling economy has begun to affect students' college choices, experts say.

"Parents are more realistic, and students are looking at staying at home as more of an option now," said Lynette Bennett, president of Schollegiate Edge, a White Lake Township-based college admissions and financial aid consulting firm. "But I also think colleges -- not all -- are a little bit more realistic. We are seeing a little bit better financial aid awards."

Many public universities, including Oakland and Wayne State universities and University of Michigan-Dearborn, have beefed up their budgets to help families in crisis. Still, many students seem to be delaying decisions until they have a clearer picture of their finances.

"I think a lot of families are waiting to see what happens with GM and Chrysler," said Stanley Henderson, vice chancellor for enrollment management and student life at U-M Dearborn.

Many Michigan families, rocked by losses in college savings plans and income, are carefully weighing financial offers from prospective schools.

"It's stressful," said Denise Tinskey of Howell, whose son Steven, 18, is deciding between Central Michigan University, Aquinas College and, potentially, MSU if he gets off the waiting list. "A lot of paperwork. A lot of dates to keep in your head when you have to get deposits turned in."

The Tinskeys' 529 college savings plan took a hit with the economy, so they're waiting a year to tap into the fund in hopes its value will increase. Meanwhile, Steven's father, an electrician, is trying to pick up more side jobs to cover the $13,500 out-of-pocket costs after deducting financial aid.

Federal financial aid applications are up 26 percent in Michigan for the first quarter of 2009, compared to 20.8 percent nationally, according to U.S. Department of Education data analyzed by Student Lending Analytics. Michigan students filed 301,985 Free Applications for Federal Student Aid, compared to 239,659 in the same quarter last year, among the highest in the nation for percentage increase.

Starting college small

Community colleges, which can cost about one-fourth of public universities, have been booming in recent years, reaching a 10-year peak at nearly 235,000 students in 2008.

Historically, community college enrollment spikes when the economy is down and flattens when it prospers.

"We have no reason to expect any downward trend in enrollment, at least in the short term," said Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association.

Not only are enrollments growing for career and technical training, but colleges are also seeing younger students, who are choosing to start off at community colleges rather than four-year universities to save on costs.

"Our tuition is going to be a lower rate, and they can save on room and board as well," said John Bolden, executive vice chancellor at Wayne County Community College District, which is bracing for record enrollment in the fall. "That gives (students) a real strong option."

Tuition and fees are $1,009.75 for a semester of 15 credits at WCCCD, $936.50 at Oakland Community College and $1,080 at Macomb Community College. Average cost of a semester of 15 credits at Michigan public universities is about $4,300.

"Community college can be a great option for students," Bennett said. "It can reduce out-of-pocket expenses $10,000 or more a year -- especially if a student is funding college themselves."

Recognizing the demand for lower-cost education, community colleges have increased their partnerships with four-year universities, offering programs ranging from architecture and accounting to business and computers. The agreements ensure that community college students can easily transfer credits to a university to finish out a bachelor's degree.

Hoping for growth

Similar to community colleges, total enrollment among Michigan's 15 public universities has grown steadily over the last decade, from 272,316 in 1999 to 293,649 in 2008. And some universities are still hoping for new growth.

The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor -- with a record-breaking 30,000 applications -- is projecting 200-300 more students in its freshman class. Undergraduate applications were also up at Wayne State, Northern Michigan, Ferris State University, Grand Valley State, Saginaw Valley State, Oakland and Central.

Western Michigan University, Lake Superior State University and U-M Dearborn saw applications dip slightly, but are planning for overall enrollment increases.

Applications dropped less than 1 percent at MSU, following a record high in 2008. MSU plans for 100 fewer freshmen because retention rates are up and the university aims to stay between 46,000 to 47,000 students, said MSU's Cotter.

Michigan Tech is also planning for a 100-student drop, because of a historically large incoming class last year and normal headcount ebb and flow, said John B. Lehman, assistant vice president for enrollment services.

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