• August 28, 2015

As Recession Persists, Fall 2010 Will Be the 'Hard One,' College Presidents Say

When Paul Hennigan, president of Point Park University, in Pittsburgh, asked a room full of small-college presidents here whether they were nervous about meeting enrollment targets for the next academic year, the answer was a resounding "Yes!"

Most of the 60 or so college presidents who gathered for an open forum on the economy at a meeting of the Council of Independent Colleges here this week, as the recession crossed the two-year mark, said they had come through this past fall better than they'd hoped. They said they had met their enrollment targets or surpassed them — particularly by adding more graduate students and adult learners. But it's next academic year the presidents are most worried about.

"There is a theory that fall 2010 is going to be the hard one," said Mr. Hennigan. The college presidents allowed The Chronicle to attend the forum on the condition that it not quote anyone but Mr. Hennigan by name so that the presidents could talk openly about their situations.

One of the presidents reported that "niche" markets — selective academic programs that are unique to a campus — are still doing well. Athletics programs are also jammed with students, the presidents reported. A few presidents said they were hoping to bolster their enrollments by redoubling their efforts to capture transfer students from community colleges, where so many more undergraduates start out.

"We have shifted two or three recruiters to community-college recruitment," said one president. She said she had been trying to work closely with the president of the community college in her area and had made sure coaches at her college knew coaches at the community college to encourage athletes to transfer.

Indeed, community colleges are posing the biggest competition for some small, private liberal-arts colleges. "Parents are increasingly reluctant to invest in a kid who doesn't know where she wants to end up," said another president. "The competition from community colleges is worse than it's ever been."

Mr. Hennigan also asked the presidents at the forum if they had "crisis fatigue." And he wondered how they were keeping morale up on their campuses. One new president, who inherited financial problems that included a $1-million budget cut, said she had tried to be "transparent" with faculty and staff members.

"I opened up a dedicated e-mail that comes straight to me, and I respond to each individually," she said. "People are much more understanding when they know what's going on."


1. jeff1 - January 06, 2010 at 04:48 pm

Really. So they said that they met or exceeded targets? They remain concerned for Fall 2010? Interesting. Why?

2. lauralcrum - January 06, 2010 at 04:52 pm

I, too, am a little confused about why Fall 2010 looks to be so difficult. All my research has indicated that enrollment in higher education rises during recessions. If that's true, why the concern?


3. prgreen - January 06, 2010 at 06:13 pm

I think because these are small, private schools, and thus probably have higher tuition rates than the community colleges and state schools they're competing with. My guess would be that they hit their targets last year because students in 08-09 made their education plans in 07-08, before the recession hit. Seniors this year (freshmen next year) will be in the midst of the recession while making their college decisions, which may cause them to think cheap. Or cheaper, I suppose.

4. jeff1 - January 07, 2010 at 07:30 am

Yes tuition rates at small privates schools are higher in general than community colleges and state schools. However, they can discount in ways that state schools cannot, they are perceived as higher quality and community colleges generally are not their competitors nor are large state institutions in most cases. I fail to see how Fall 2010 is going to be any more difficult based on what was presented in this very superficial tabloit article (the CHE provides some wonderful articles but they have also recently had a tendency to tabloit superficiality in too many of their pieces).

5. commserver - January 07, 2010 at 07:54 am

I have a daughter who is a freshman going to little ivy liberal arts institution. She applied to many public and private institutions. In every case she got more financial aid from the private institutions, even from SUNY Binghamton. Moral: Affordability depends on the institution.

6. 11223140 - January 07, 2010 at 10:03 am

I think that prgreen states the realities pretty well. While those of us in private liberal arts education/administration often want to believe that we are not competing with lower priced state schools, the reality is often different, depending upon your market. Sure, the Ivy's and some Top 50 liberal arts schools are not in fact competing heavily with the publics for the same students, but most of the rest of us are (just don't tell your President, some illusions are not ready to be burst). While I agree with jeff1's notion that privates can and do "...discount in ways that state schools cannot...," the unfortunate reality is that said discounting always comes back and bites you in the budget, to the chargrin of all (i.e. there go the annual raises, etc...time for another dreaded pep talk from the Prez about belt-tightening, etc.) True, this was not the most illuminating article on the topic I have seen, but the recruitment challenges for most privates for 2010-2011 are indeed real.

7. malvais - January 07, 2010 at 12:18 pm

I have had several administrators at three different public universities tell me that the issue is that states have a budget shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars. This year the universities and states were able to benefit from the stimulus funds, but when those run out they will be facing major deficits.

8. mr12345 - January 07, 2010 at 12:58 pm

11223140 is correct on all counts. One thing to remember is that if a college's funding is based on the endowment, most endowments took a huge hit in the last 2 years. If the college works on a 12 quarter rolling average to calculate its draw from the endowment, by 2010-1011 there will be several quarters in the calculation that are very low. This results in less money drawn for operating expenses. This also results in budget shortfalls that only get worse as time goes by and is why 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 will be bad years. By then each college will have many low earnings quarters to calculate into the average. This results in a draw that is much lower. My insitution has frozen salaries, used the word "adjunct" for the first time, and essentially fired tenure-track professors. No one knows what gloom and doom is next and everybody is on edge about it.

9. sibyl - January 07, 2010 at 05:19 pm

Endowment shortfalls are indeed relevant. But the other issue is that the recession hit while last year's freshmen were already well along in their college planning; if they had their heart set on Pricey U, and Mom & Dad had already saved for it, they just stayed on target and hoped for a good result. But this fall's entering class has had more time to worry about money, therefore they've had more time to decide to ditch Pricey U for Budget U. That's the theory, anyway. In the end, no one knows.

10. jeff1 - January 07, 2010 at 05:20 pm

Very few run of the mill institutions depend on endowments. While the additional spending endowment earnings offer are nice, most have already tightened the spending rules. The draw is already low. I simply do not buy the argument that Fall 2010 is going to be any more difficult than Fall 2009. Things, my friends, are what they are. Admissions will always feel the pressure to bring in that ideal class (quantity and quality). The sky is not falling, our industry needs to get even more sophisticated about these issues and move one and get the work done. This is also a time when we should look to work together in much more extreme ways (collaborations on admissions, HR and other areas, sharing faculty, programs, etc.) for the benefit of students and to ratchet up our scale and ability.

11. cathyphd - January 08, 2010 at 07:30 am

I believe all 4 year private Universities are concerned for the "economy" is recruiting (forcing) many students to take a second look at the Community Colleges. Enrollment is up at the community colleges for the freshman see the financial savings of attending the college for two years. Not only is savings a benefit, but many times the classes are taught by the same faculty in the private university. This is my case --the community college here offered me 4 classes this coming term where my private university only offered 2 --quess where I'm teaching this Spring term? I too have to go where I can economically advance.

12. pseudotriton - January 08, 2010 at 11:05 am

I don't know about these presidents, but as an academic job seeker for the past three years, I am really experiencing "crisis fatigue". At first, I still had some hope to keep me going, but lately, I am becoming more disillusioned, and starting to wonder where my career (and life) will end up.

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