Fewer Students, Less Tuition: Colleges Bucking Trends

Feb 28, 2011

In a time when colleges are doing whatever they can to save money, some are defying the norms in order to stand out. This has meant seeking fewer applicants and lowering tuition, both moves that might seem to be financially disastrous, yet are intended to strengthen the schools.

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By Jeff Calareso

Saying No to the Admissions Arms Race

Located just outside Philadelphia, Ursinus College might appear to be struggling. Applicants for the next class of freshman dropped by 1,700 when compared to last year, or nearly a third of the total pool. This came on the heels of a 5-year stretch when the volume of applicants nearly tripled.

Yet those numbers don't tell the whole story. The admissions leaders at Ursinus made a conscious decision to scale back on applicants. This runs contrary to the widespread trend of colleges going after every possible applicant and possibly inflating numbers to show perpetual growth in applications year after year. At most colleges, growing the number of applications while keeping the student body size constant provides the impression of exclusivity. Though that may make a college seem desirable, Ursinus grew increasingly uncomfortable with how this played out.

By soliciting more applications, Ursinus diluted its applicant pool. While more people were applying, they were also applying to many other schools. This mean that the school needed to offer a rising number of spots to applicants, only to have a rising percentage of them choose another school. At its peak, 87% of admitted students didn't end up at Ursinus. Therefore, while the latest numbers seem alarming, they're intended to foster a more committed group of applicants.

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Lowering Tuition to Make Money

Like Ursinus College, Sewanee, a liberal arts college in Tennessee, is also going against the grain. Only instead of cutting its applicant pool, Sewanee is cutting its tuition. Lowering its main revenue source may seem counterintuitive in the midst of a struggling economy, perhaps more so when you consider that most private colleges raise tuition each year. Yet Sewanee is taking a different track. They aim to take a short-term hit on the bottom line while pursuing a long-term goal of staying competitive.

Sewanee has been struggling to compete with lower-priced larger public universities. As with Ursinus, Sewanee has seen its number of admitted students choosing the college drop. Yet with the troubles in the economy, government funding for the big universities has fallen, causing them to raise their tuition. This helped Sewanee decide that now is the ideal time to lower tuition. By doing so, they hope to appeal to students who may have been priced out of attending otherwise.

To cushion the blow to their revenue, Sewanee will draw upon their sizable endowment. The goal, however, is to make up those losses down the road. Ultimately, Sewanee is positioning itself as a cost-effective alternative for students who can't keep up with rising prices at other private colleges. Simultaneously, they hope to attract students away from the big universities when they might prefer a smaller school environment.

If you're about to apply to colleges, read our article on the college application process to learn the ins and outs before you begin.

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