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6 hard questions to ask colleges in a tough economy

Boston University is eliminating its wrestling program.
Boston University is eliminating its wrestling program.
Nancy Griesemer

The recent announcement of plans to drop seven varsity sports from Temple University’s roster of Division 1 offerings pretty much puts a face on what counselors and other admissions professionals have been warning about the impact of funding cuts on both public and private institutions.

Although Temple’s athletes have been offered the opportunity to stay in school with their scholarships intact, the reality is they won’t get to compete. And competition for athletes who have spent a lifetime honing skills is what it’s all about.

For these athletes or department heads facing academic program cuts, it’s no secret that college administrators and boards are increasingly being asked to make hard choices as they struggle with demographic and economic realities in a battle for long-term survival and institutional health.

And a divide is opening between financially healthy colleges versus those that are not, making it imperative for students and their parents to understand how financial constraints affect colleges, application processes, and admissions decisions.

Keeping these warnings in mind, here are six hard questions to ask colleges in a tough economy:

1. How has admissions been affected by budget cuts?
Even in the face of increased numbers of applications to process, admissions budgets aren’t growing. As a result, admissions offices are making do with less. Glossy view books and travel allowances have become increasingly scarce, as colleges seek additional ways to trim budgets while continuing to respond to demands for more applicants. Colleges are being pressured to make “exclusive” arrangements with the Common Application to save money and pump up application numbers while going toward “paperless” processes to reduce the need for clerical support staff. Freedom to choose among application formats and the ability to tailor application components for individual colleges are narrowing, resulting in frustration for both the applicant and the institution. And working within these limitations can definitely make it harder for you to make your case for admission.

2. Has the application process been affected?
To conserve resources (and get a jump on competition), colleges are experimenting with different early action and binding early decision plans. Rather than setting up a process that encourages a single windfall of applications late in the season, admissions offices are looking for a more even distribution of work from September to May. And the appeal of early decision candidates committed to attending at the front end of the process is undeniable from both workload and application yield standpoints. Don’t be surprised if rather than deferring large numbers of applicants from the early to the regular pools, colleges force hard decisions earlier by denying larger percentages of early applicants—it takes time and money to read and re-read applications. And look for greater use of wait lists, as colleges work to increase yield and the appearance of selectivity.

3. Are priorities changing in financial aid?
Colleges formerly boasting of “need-blind” admissions or “no loan” packaging are reassessing their policies to ensure adequate financial aid resources remain available to the greatest number of students. Be aware that shifts in the balance between merit aid and loans in financial aid packages make some colleges appear more generous than they really are. It’s not unusual for colleges to engage in “gapping” (not covering full need) when offering financial aid, but the gaps are getting larger. And be aware that not all guarantee merit scholarships for four full years. To save money without harming published freshmen retention rates, colleges may not continue scholarships after two years—even if all academic requirements have been met. It really pays to be a savvy shopper before applying and committing to a school as you can’t always negotiate your way out of a problem.

4. Are budget cuts affecting programs?
Ask Temple’s rowers or the swimmers at the University of Maryland or Boston University’s wrestlers why this may be important. While some cuts cannot be anticipated, others may be planned and colleges have a responsibility to make them public. Be aware that the question isn’t limited to sports. Responding to increased pressure to emphasize more marketable majors, colleges are re-rigging programs—cutting some and adding new opportunities. At a more basic level, colleges may be quietly increasing class size, reducing research or experiential learning opportunities, relying more heavily on teaching assistants (TA's), or offering specific classes less often—even eliminating them altogether. Short of finding that a program or major has been done away with, students may experience difficulty finishing in four years if classes are overloaded or simply unavailable, especially in areas where coursework is highly sequenced.

5. Will there be changes in requirements for graduation?
Sometimes this can work in your favor. Loyola University of Chicago recently reduced the number of credit hours required for graduation from 128 to 120. But because AP/IB or other outside college credits earned during high school can mean significant money both to you and the institution, take the time to see how these credits may be applied (toward graduation or specific majors) and ask if the college anticipates changes in these kinds of arrangements. For example, Dartmouth recently announced that credit would no longer be granted for AP or IB examinations. Placement and some exemptions may be offered instead. Although students may accelerate graduation by up to one semester by taking an extra-heavy course load, they may no longer use “free” AP/IB credits—a tuition bonus for Dartmouth and an extra expense for you.

6. What is the impact on student services?
Despite being encouraged to do so, applicants don’t always take into account the real value of the student services component when considering colleges. As schools discover they can make money from room and board packages, students may find themselves limited by restrictive housing policies and meal plans. For lots of different reasons—including financial—colleges are limiting students to on-campus housing for more years. The more captive the audience, the less risk involved in building glamorous new facilities. But beyond day-to-day living, services also include everything from library or gym facilities and hours, to tech support, career advising, health/mental health services or academic support for writing centers and math labs. These should be “growing” operations, and if they aren’t, budget cuts in these areas might be concerning.

Because colleges won’t always volunteer the the information, it’s important that you do the kind of research and ask the questions necessary to understand potential game changers.

Make it your mission to test whether the college “experience” promised today will be there four years from now.