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Financial Viability, You Say?

Miami — Tuition’s rising, family incomes are declining, and many admissions and financial-aid officers are fretting. Wait, have you heard this one before?

Of course you have, but some discussions are more thoughtful than others. At the College Board’s national conference on Thursday, I listened to an especially eloquent rendering of the financial challenges facing colleges and families. Nothing’s at stake, it seems, except for the very mission of colleges.

Jon McGee, vice president for planning and public affairs at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, in Minnesota, described the difficulty of serving the “ambiguously needy,” whom he described as middle- and upper-middle-income Americans who shop at Target, buy many things, and cringe when they see their expected family contribution.

“The vast majority of the U.S. population is needy or ambiguously needy,” he said. “Uncertainty is their signature.”

The future of college admissions, Mr. McGee suggested, will turn on two questions for institutions: “Who can afford me?” and “Whom can I afford?”

The answers will determine whether colleges can maintain quality and accessibility—two goals, Mr. McGee said, that are tough to fulfill at the same time. In the end, the real question for colleges might be, “Who are we?” And, of course, not everyone can be Harvard (or whatever college that’s perceived as “better”).

“We’re an industry that’s filled with emulation, which is a lovely thing, in learning,” Mr. McGee said, “but you have to understand who you are.”

That means knowing how your enrollment strategies square with the reality of the marketplace. Before your college adds a program in X, Mr. McGee said, you should know if there’s market for X among prospective students.

And before your college decides to, say, recruit more Chinese students, you should consider whether your campus has the necessary support services for them, and how your recruitment strategies might affect your brand.

“These things don’t come cost-free,” Mr. McGee said.

Nathan Mueller, principal at Hardwick-Day Inc., an education-consulting firm, offered a prediction for the future. ”Some colleges will choose to embrace a mission and accept the consequences to their revenue,” he said. “Others will choose to pursue revenue and accept the consequences to their mission.”

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