Colleges Are Stressed: How You Can Take Advantage of It

on August 8, 2017

Just thinking about college can stress you out. It’s common to worry about getting into college, paying for it and successfully graduating.


When facing these pressures, you might believe (and be resentful) that universities have it made. They can raise their prices and hike their rejection rates and then sit back and watch the college admission spectacle that they unleashed.


But here’s something you will probably find shocking: College admissions staffs are probably more stressed than you are.


Higher-ed observers have been predicting for years that colleges inevitably will experience a painful disruption just like other beleaguered industries such as steel, music, network television and retail stores. And, sure enough, colleges seem to be inching closer and closer to their own inevitable tipping point.


Hundreds of college administrators admit that they are plenty worried, according to a new annual survey that Gallup conducted for Inside Higher Ed, a respected trade publication. 


In the latest survey, 71 percent of chief business officers agree that media reports portraying higher education in a financial crisis are accurate.


Considerably more of these administrators express alarm than just two years ago when 56 percent agreed that the industry was in a crisis.


Knowing what college administrators are worried about can help you reduce your own anxiety as you anticipate your own college decisions. And, here’s the even better part: There are ways to take advantage of this institutional angst.


Here are four of the things that the professionals running colleges are worried about:


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


In the past, universities felt confident that they could grow their way out of their financial challenges. If they needed more cash, a college’s admission representatives just needed to hustle and attract more students.


But that’s not a foolproof strategy today because the pool of college-age children is shrinking and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Attracting more freshmen is now a much tougher assignment.


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


What this means for you:


You might enjoy more leverage than you realize. Beyond the most selective colleges that are deluged with applicants, your admission chances could be better than you might assume.


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


2. Slashing unadvertised discounts isn’t realistic.


One of the open secrets of college 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 college administrators set bogus prices is to make families feel special when colleges award teenagers scholarships and/or grants. Getting that money in an award letter can feel like winning the lottery.


Increased competition and a declining pool of teenagers have made sealing the deal more difficult. That’s forced many colleges to offer bigger price breaks.


For the 1990-91 school year, for instance, the average institutional tuition discount was 26 percent for freshmen, but today it’s almost 49 percent, 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.


Colleges, however, can’t indefinitely keep hiking their price cuts 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 percent of budget officers at private colleges and universities say the discount rate is unsustainable. Twenty-three percent 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 percent of them anticipate trying to reduce their offers to potential freshmen.


What this means for you:


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


3. Private colleges are the most vulnerable.


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


Administrators at private colleges and universities, which educate 30 percent of students at four-year institutions, weren’t as sanguine. Forty-nine percent of business officers at private colleges and 54 percent 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 college closures and mergers are rare, it makes sense to do your research about the financial stability of the institutions that interest you. Read the following Cappex article about how you can evaluate whether a college could be in serious financial trouble: How to Tell If a College Will Go Bust.


4. Spending cuts are going to hurt.


Sixty-four percent of administrators say that new money for their campus programs is going to have to come from reallocating resources within their institutions. At the same time, 52 percent 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 colleges 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, 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 college 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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