Surprise: Freshman Enrollment Is Surging

By Robert Rothman — October 21, 1987 8 min read
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This fall’s unexpected jump in freshman enrollments at many colleges, coming at a time when the college-age population is decreasing, suggests that a growing proportion of high-school graduates is pursuing higher education, admissions officers say.

Though definitive national statistics are unavailable this early in the academic year, R. Russell Shunk, president of the National Association of College Admission6Counselors, estimated last week that some 40 percent of the nation’s 3,300 colleges and universities saw increases in freshman enrollments this fall. For the rest, he said, the figures either remained stable or declined.

It is not yet known whether the net result is a gain in the number of college freshmen nationwide, cautioned Mr. Shunk, who is director of admissions at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

But a sharp increase last year in the number of students taking college-admissions tests, coupled with anecdotal evidence from colleges reporting unusually high matriculation rates for students accepted for admission, supports the likelihood of such a gain.

Those interviewed last week suggested a variety of reasons for the apparent increase.

One likely explanation is that, more than ever, “college is viewed by many people as the ticket to ‘the good life,”’ said Frank Burtnett, executive director of the nacac

“Students are looking for long-term opportunities,” added Kenneth C. Green, associate director of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, which surveys incoming freshmen each year. “College ultimately offers better prospects.”

Students’ belief that a college education will yield lifelong economic benefits is bolstered by new data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census. In a study released this month, bureau analysts found that the average monthly income in 1984 was $1,841 for those with a bachelor’s degree, compared with $1,045 for high-school graduates.

Moreover, observers point out, the parents of many of today’s teen-agers are themselves beneficiaries of the boom in college enrollments that occurred in the 1960’s. Such parents, they say, are naturally predisposed to emphasize the value of higher education.

“As parents become educated, isn’t it understandable that their expectations for their children become a collegiate education?” asked Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, at the annual meeting of the nacac last month.

Unexpected ‘Yield’

The institutions whose officials were surprised by this fall’s higher-than-anticipated “yield"--the proportion of accepted students that actually matriculates--range from major state universities to small liberal-arts colleges.

At Pennsylvania State University, for example, overall freshman enrollment at the main campus was up by 500 students this fall, according to Scott Healy, director of admissions.

Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., enrolled 169 freshmen this fall--41 percent of those it accepted and 17 more than in 1986. For a school as small as Scripps, said its director of admissions, Leslie Miles, even that increase caused logistical problems.

To house the additional students, she said, the college, like many others that experienced increases, placed three students in suites designed for two.

“The science has gone out of predicting the yield these days,” Ms. Miles said.

The increase at Scripps occurred even though admissions officials were more selective than usual in accepting students, she added. The college was forced to reject students who would have been accepted in prior years, she said.

Other institutions reporting unanticipated increases this fall include:

Miami-Dade Community College, whose fall enrollment of 43,933 stu4dents is 5.9 percent above last year’s total.

Springfield College in Springfield, Mass., whose enrollment has doubled, to 578, over the past five years. This year’s enrollment is 38 students more than the school’s target.

Dickinson College, whose freshman enrollment of 593 is 48 above its target.

Despite certain problems--particularly strains on freshman housing--caused by enrollment jumps, college officials are not complaining, however. They would rather have more students than expected than fewer, noted Dickinson’s Mr. Shunk.

“Colleges base their budget on the number of enrolled students,” he said. “If you are over, you can always add beds or hire more faculty.”

“If you are under” the projected number, he added, “you have to look at resources, and look at where to cut.”

Early Indicators

The first indication that colleges might face an unexpected rise in enrollments came last spring, when many institutions reported receiving an unusually high number of applications. (See Education Week, May 13, 1987.)

At the time, administrators speculated that students were “hedging their bets” by applying to a greater number of schools.

But this fall, when larger-than-expected numbers of students actually showed up on many campuses, admissions officials began to consider the possibility that a larger proportion of high-school graduates was going on to college.

While national groups that track enrollment are still compiling data, statistics from the two major college-admissions testing programs provide the strongest clue that enrollments are up nationwide this year.

An additional 130,000 students took either the Scholastic Aptitude Test or the American College Testing Program’s test in 1986-87--a 7 percent increase over the previous year.

By contrast, the number of 17-year-olds rose by just 2 percent last year, according to Robert G. Cameron, executive director for research and development for the College Board, which administers the sat (See Education Week, Sept. 30, 1987.)

Economic Factors

The economic resurgence that much of the country has enjoyed since the recession of the early 1980’s may be one factor prompting a larger proportion of young people to consider going to college, suggested Mr. Burtnett of the admissions counselors’ association. The improved economy, he said, offers students the prospect of finding better jobs by completing postsecondary training.

Colleges with declining enrollments, added Mr. Shunk, tend to be located in areas where overall populations are declining and job opportunities are fewer.

A survey of four-year public colleges conducted last fall by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges found that enrollments had increased in states where high-technology industries were booming.

But the survey also found that state-college enrollments had increased in economically depressed states as well.

“In states where slumps in oil, gas, and coal economies have forced people back to school for retraining, campus enrollments are increasing,” said a report based on the survey, “When Projections Miss Their Mark.”

But higher enrollments in state-supported institutions do not necessarily indicate that more students are attending college overall, cautioned Mr. Healy of Penn State. Many students in those institutions might otherwise have attendedmore expensive private colleges, he noted.

Marketing Campaigns

In addition to economic factors favoring college enrollment, Mr. Burtnett said, increased enrollments may be result of more aggressive promotional efforts by admissions officers.

Precisely because colleges have been expecting a decline in enrollments as the college-age population drops, he explained, many recruiters are now seeking applications from a wider pool of prospective students.

Penn State, for example, uses a network of some 2,200 alumni around the country to provide information about the institution to promising high-school students, according to Mr. Healy. Largely as a result, he said, the college received a large number of applications from out-of-state students this year.

Penn State is also among a growing number of institutions that have begun to target their marketing efforts to younger students. The university has produced a brochure, which officials will distribute to every high school and junior high school in Pennsylvania, that encourages youngsters to begin planning for higher education.

The admissions counselors’ association has produced a similar brochure for families of 7th- and 8th-grade students, according to Mr. Shunk.

Many colleges have also stepped up their marketing efforts aimed at minority students. “We let students know the university is accepting [minority students], and that people here will be supportive,” said Rosetta Gooden, an admissions officer at Emory University in Atlanta.

Even if this year’s apparent enrollment surge is confirmed by hard data, the prospects for a continuation of the trend are highly uncertain.

Mr. Burtnett of the admission counselors’ group suggests that tougher precollegiate academic standards, imposed as part of the school-reform movement, may help boost the proportion of high-school graduates pursuing higher education.

“At some point, education reform is going to have to start paying some dividends,” he said. “The end product of 12 better years of education may be a larger number of college students.”

But Mr. Green of the Higher Education Research Institute at ucla warned that this assessment may be premature.

“Campuses that feel they made it through the enrollment crunch may be deceiving themselves,” he said. “There will be some surprises about how well enrollment is sustaining itself.”

Mr. Green noted that while some colleges have experienced a boom in enrollment, others--particularly community colleges--have suffered declines.

In addition, he said, demographic trends show that the steepest decline in the number of 17-year-olds will take place between 1989 and 1994.

Currently, some 3.5 million Americans are in that age group. That number is expected to decline to 3.4 million by the end of the decade, and to 3.3 million by 1994.

“The congratulatory feeling is a bit premature,” Mr. Green concluded. “The worst decline is yet to come.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 1987 edition of Education Week as Surprise: Freshman Enrollment Is Surging


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