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Classes swell at colleges

After a year of declining endowments and rising material costs, most local colleges and universities are getting a little breathing room in the form of larger-than-expected enrollment numbers. 

Enrollments are up nearly across the board, a combination of greater efforts to recruit and retain students and an increase in the number of local students who want to stay closer to home. Though college officials note that all numbers are preliminary and final tallies will not be known until a few weeks into the semester, many see the projections as a positive development in an otherwise difficult year.

Not all colleges saw great increases over their totals from last year, but many did better than expected, given economic conditions. Nazareth College of Rochester brought in roughly 490 freshman, 10 more than last year but nearly 30 more than expected. SUNY College at Brockport’s freshman class grew by more than 10 percent. 

At Nazareth, the freshman class came as a bit of a surprise. College officials had a target of 465 students for the class, and when it came in with more than 490 students they took it as a sign that the message of Nazareth’s value is getting out properly. 

"Our pricing and value actually worked well in our favor this year," said Thomas DaRin, Nazareth vice president for enrollment management. "We thought if we could come close to last year’s enrollment we would be in pretty good shape, and the fact that we’re above it speaks to the good work we do in getting that message about our value out." 

It was a record year for Rochester Institute of Technology. With a large number of international students, officials there were expecting a down year as the recession touched all areas of the globe. Instead, RIT brought in its largest freshman class with roughly 2,650 students and the largest full-time enrollment in its history.

The economic downturn also contributed to the quality of students coming to SUNY College at Geneseo. There applications rose roughly 2 percent, but William Caren, associate vice president for enrollment services at the college, said the real increase was in the quality of students. 

Many students who in other years might have looked to more expensive private colleges were searching for a more affordable option, bringing up the quality of students at SUNY Geneseo, Caren said. This year the freshman class of 950 students has a mean SAT score of 1,340, the highest in school history.

SUNY College at Brockport was able to keep its quality indicators consistent while it gained significantly larger numbers of freshman and transfer students, 1,105 and 915 respectively. Last year the college brought in 1,000 freshmen and 800 full-time transfers. 

Nazareth grew its total undergraduate enrollment by some 2 percent from last year, to 2,218. A larger number of students come from Monroe County this year, which DaRin attributes to families looking for a closer, more cost-effective option. 

RIT is also drawing more students from New York: The new class is 48 percent New Yorkers, two to three percentage points higher than normal.

"If the economic factors were otherwise, we probably would have been between 45 and 46 percent of freshmen from New York," said James Miller, RIT vice president for enrollment management and career services. "You’ll see that when things tighten up, more students are staying or starting closer to home." 

That trend may be only temporary. College officials are planning for the number of high school graduates in New York to drop starting next year, and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education predicts an 18 percent drop in graduates from the state over the next decade. 

St. John Fisher College is looking for growth over the next few years in its outer markets where pockets of alumni can help it reach new potential students. It also is considering new programs or majors that will serve diverse or underrepresented student populations to make the school a more viable option for those outside the state, said Gerard Rooney, vice president of enrollment management. 

For the University of Rochester, it was economic conditions elsewhere that helped bring new students. The university pulls 90 percent of its students from outside the Rochester area, and in the past year it saw large jumps in the number of students from California and Texas, where budget crises have sucked funding from the state college systems. 

In California, there has been talk of cutting as many as 10,000 students from the college system, and Texas has redirected students from the popular Austin campus to satellites, said Jonathan Burdick, dean of admissions at UR. Thanks to steady recruitment efforts in the West, UR is able to attract more of these students who look to private colleges instead, Burdick said. 

UR is bringing in a freshman class of 1,091 students, down from 1,140 last year. The decrease is by design, to make room for renovations that will reduce dormitory capacity over the next year or so, Burdick said. 

At Nazareth, the higher enrollment numbers this year may help stabilize budgets in the short term, but the economic conditions of the past year have underscored the need to be creative and smart in decisions about costs, DaRin said. 

"There’s a real sense of relief that the budgets will be fine and we won’t be cutting positions," he said. "Things look and feel good right now, but we know we have challenges ahead for the coming year and this is not over or just a one-year blip."

Looking ahead 

Most colleges are also increasing the pool of financial aid money available for students, preparing for a larger number of requests from students whose parents may have lost jobs or encountered other financial difficulties. 

At St. John Fisher, the stock market drop of the past year left some of the endowed scholarships under water, so the college used institutional funds to make them whole and ensure that they would be available for students. Like other colleges, it also increased the amount of money available for student aid upon appeal. 

"We haven’t changed structurally the formula for aid, but we do help if students come with a short-term need or one of their parents is unemployed or if their savings for college lost value," Rooney said. "We have already seen some families approach us about that very circumstance. It’s money we not only made available but expect to put to good use in helping families continue to stay at St. John Fisher." 

In addition to increasing its financial aid money, RIT is putting a greater effort into the front end of its recruitment efforts. During the recruitment and admission process there was a greater emphasis on the personal connection between families and the college to ensure that students make the best decision, Miller said.

Investing more personal time at that point in the process helps RIT reduce the number of students who might later realize the college is not right for them and transfer, Miller said. Even when the economy recovers, he said, these efforts are going to continue. 

"We have always done that, but we feel like we needed to do it more to know the needs and wants of students and applicants better," he said. "If they’re going to select us, ultimately the cognitive dimension of looking at colleges has to be complemented by the increased affinity or affective dimension." 

UR is also keeping a close eye on its students, especially those who need large loans. Even though the university has increased the financial aid pool for undergraduates by $3 million, Burdick said, there are always students and parents willing to blindly take on large amounts of debt. 

"Even if it’s just 10 students a year doing this, I watch them and worry about them," Burdick said. "Some of them have a plan, know exactly how much they’re taking and that the $20,000 they take in extra will be rolled in along with the loans they take for medical school. Others are stumbling into it, and we want to keep an eye on them." 

rbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303



09/04/09 (C) Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303. 




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