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Colleges Are Stressed: How You Can Take Advantage of It

Colleges Are Stressed: How You Can Take Advantage of It

Just thinking about earning an undergraduate degree can be stressful. It’s also common to worry about getting into a college or university, paying for it and successfully graduating. When facing these pressures, you might believe that schools have it easy.

They can raise their prices and hike their rejection rates, then sit back and watch the admissions spectacle that they unleashed. But here’s something you will probably find shocking: admissions staff are probably more stressed than you are.

Higher education observers have predicted for years that schools inevitably will experience a painful disruption; just like other beleaguered industries such as steel, music, network television and retail stores. Hundreds of school administrators admit they are worried, according to a new annual survey that Gallup conducted for Inside Higher Ed.

In the latest survey, 71% of chief business officers agree that media reports portraying higher education in a financial crisis are accurate. Administrators expressed alarm two years ago when 56% agreed that the industry was in a crisis.

Knowing what school administrators are worried about can help you reduce your own anxiety as you anticipate your own decisions. Plus, there are ways to take advantage of this institutional angst. Here are four of the things that the professionals running colleges and universities are worried about.

1. Finding more students isn’t a quick fix.

In the past, schools felt confident that they could grow their way out of financial challenges. If they needed more cash, admission representatives just needed to hustle and attract more students. But that’s not a foolproof strategy, because the pool of students is shrinking. Attracting more is now a tougher assignment.

The latest Gallup survey reflects that notion. While 71% of administrators hoped to lessen their financial problems by boosting their enrollment, that represents a 16% drop from last year.

What this means for you:

Knowing how hard it is to attract enough teenagers, it is possible to apply to some schools after their official admissions deadline. In fact, since faced with underwhelming applicants, some schools are surreptitiously recruiting teenagers after their official deposit dates have passed.

2. Slashing unadvertised discounts isn’t realistic.

One of the open secrets of admissions is that the price tags are a joke. The vast majority of students don’t pay anywhere close to the sticker price. A big reason why administrators set bogus prices is to make families feel special when schools award scholarships and/or grants.

For the 1990-91 school year, the average tuition discount was 26% for freshmen, but today it’s almost 49%, according to the annual survey of the National Association of College and University Business Officers. That’s a lot of money going out of the door.

Schools, however, can’t keep offering discounts through need-based aid and scholarships to attract enough students to fill their freshmen classes. Something’s got to give. And sure enough, in the Gallup survey, 49% of budget officers at private colleges and universities say the discount rate is unsustainable. 23% of public administrators said the same thing!

While almost half of private administrators say they can’t keep dispensing such fat price cuts, only 32% of them anticipate trying to reduce their offers to potential freshmen.

What this means for you:

It is possible to negotiate with schools to obtain bigger awards. You typically will enjoy better luck pressing for bigger grants and scholarships at private schools that are under more pressure to meet their freshmen quotas.

3. Private schools are the most vulnerable.

Not everyone is equally nervous about the future of their campuses. For instance, 85% of administrators at public research universities say they believe their own institutions will be financially stable during the next five years.

On the contrary, administrators at private colleges and universities, which educate 30% of students at four-year institutions, weren’t as optimistic. 49% of business officers at private colleges and 54% at private universities agree or strongly agree that their institutions will be financially stable during the next five years.

What this means for you:

While school closures and mergers are rare, it makes sense to do your research about the financial stability of the institutions that interest you.

4. Spending cuts are going to hurt.

64% of administrators say that new money for their campus programs will have to come from reallocating resources within their institutions. At the same time, 52% believe their institutions can’t make significant spending cuts without affecting quality.

What this means for you:

It’s critical that you don’t just shop for schools by focusing on things that really don’t matter. Sports records don’t matter. The menus in the dining halls don’t matter. Neither does the brand name.

You need to spend time researching the quality of the education you might receive at a college or university, as well as what the institution will do to help you prepare for a career! During this time of collegiate cost cutting, doing your due diligence is especially important.  For example, when a school is faced with budget pressure, it may increase class size, which can affect the quality of your education.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on 

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