The Economic Crisis and College Admissions


Tough Times Strain Colleges

Preparing for and applying to college is
never without at least a little anxiety.  But this year, our nation’s
economic crisis is adding a new layer of college-related worry for
parents, kids and counselors.  In addition to any possible personal financial fallout, many of
you may have seen the steady stream of recent articles in the press describing
colleges’ belt-tightening plans in the form of budget cuts, hiring freezes, and
suspended capital campaigns.  Naturally, people are wondering how, if at
all, this will affect kids and their college choices. I’m writing you this post to answer some of these questions.

I don’t think even economic experts can predict exactly how
this crisis will affect any industry.  But after a great deal of discussion here and with our colleagues in admissions, here are some
of our thoughts, predictions and recommendations.    

How will the current economic crisis affect colleges? 

1. Many colleges will spend less money.

Whether it’s breaking ground on the new chemistry building,
the higher salaries promised for the math department or the plan to increase
financial aid to deserving students, many of those expenditures are likely to
be delayed or cut this year.  This isn’t conjecture–it’s fact; many colleges
are already on record that they’ll be trimming their budgets substantially.

2. Some private schools will see fewer applications. 

This makes sense.  Families are going to be more
cost-conscious, and with tuition at some private schools running two or three
or four times that at the publics, some of those applicants, especially those
whose families are already concerned with their ability to finance college,
will shift their applications to the less expensive, public options.

3. In spite of #2 above, the most selective private schools
will still be just as selective. 

will be just as hard to get into this year.  Why?  Because most kids
who want to apply to Georgetown
are still going to apply, regardless of their families’ financial situation. 
Highly selective colleges have enough allure that kids would rather apply, take
their chances, and wrestle with the choice of whether or not to attend (and how
to pay for it) later if they’re lucky enough to get in.  It’s the reason
why, in the months that followed 9/11, applications to NYU skyrocketed when
most people expected they would drop.

No matter the economic state of our country, we see no
reason to expect that Georgetown, NYU, USC,
Vanderbilt, Stanford, the Ivy League schools, University of Chicago
or any school that routinely rejects large percentages of their applicants will
be any less selective this year.  Even if their application numbers were
to drop, their pools will still be chock full of many more top applicants than
they could hope to admit.

4. Waitlists will be longer this year. 

This is a prediction, not a fact, but we do think it’s going
to happen.  First, let’s explain what a waitlist is.  Waitlists have
long been many colleges’ way of hedging their admissions bets.  With so
many students applying to selective colleges, it’s become difficult for these
schools to predict how many accepted students will ultimately enroll. 
Thus,  many schools–Georgetown, Washington University in St. Louis, and Vanderbilt to name a few–use
waitlists as a way to contend with this issue.  It’s not dissimilar to
being named as an alternate for an Olympic team.  We believe that a lot of
colleges already abuse waitlists and put way too many kids on them, and
unfortunately, we’re probably going to see even more of that this year.

With families facing increasing financial uncertainty and
colleges dealing with shrinking endowment funds, it will be even trickier for
colleges to guess how many freshmen will accept the offer of admission this
year, and we expect many colleges will respond by placing even more students on
the waitlists.  The good news is that we, of course, know exactly what
students need to do to give themselves the best chance of getting off the
waitlist.  Don’t worry preemptively about waitlists now, but rest assured
that if a waitlisting does happen, we’ll be there to help.

What do we recommend for college applicants?

– Be conservative with–but confident in–your college list.

If a senior gets good advice from her counselor
and puts
together a college list with the appropriate mix of schools (including
safeties), he or she will have college options.  But since nobody knows
just how
deeply this crisis will affect all colleges, this is a good year to be
conservative when
assessing a students’ chances of admission. Do not play the lottery and
apply to mostly reach schools.  The
college acceptances will be there this spring, particularly if the
applies thoughtfully to schools that are good matches.

– Don’t panic and fire off more

We’ve all been conditioned to take action when we
That’s why, as we near the end of every application cycle, some seniors
instinctively want to send out 2 or 3 or 10 additional applications
just to
make sure they haven’t left a viable college off the table. It’s going
to be
even harder to resist that inclination this year. But please, let’s all
fight that urge together.

Sending out a flurry of additional applications almost never brings the
sense of comfort and admissions relief people are hoping it will.  It just
gives kids more essays to write, more applications to complete, and more
anxiety to contend with.  And worst of all, this action distracts and
diverts students’ application attention away from the colleges that really
are the best matches for them. When applying to college, it’s always been
better to be thoughtful than to be prolific.

– Find the right colleges and communicate the match.

This year, more than ever, colleges are going to be trying
to sniff out the applicants who are most likely to attend if offered a chance
of admission. Students need to push themselves to think about their college choices.  Don’t apply
to any college “just to see what happens.”  If you have to write an
essay explaining your interest, please understand that, “You have an outstanding
faculty and a pretty campus” just isn’t going to get the job done.

We’ve always been big proponents of
matchmaking, and this year, we think that philosophy is going to pay especially
handsome dividends for students who embrace it.

– Have a financial safety school.

If a family has been, or expects to be, especially
hard-hit by the economy, you would be wise to have your student apply to one
school where you are certain both that she will be admitted and that you can
foot the bill even if you receive no financial aid. We’re fortunate to live in a country with the best public university systems in the world, including local community colleges.  If you’re hesitant about adding this type
of school to the list, remember that applying to a college is not the same as
attending. You could keep the admission to this financial safety school in your
back pocket and use it only as needed, but it would likely give you at least
some collegiate peace of mind.

This is a great example
of the kind of appropriate, measured action kids can take to ensure they have good college options next spring.

While it would be irresponsible to suggest that college
admissions will remain completely unchanged given the current state of the
economy, it’s important to remember that there are more than 2,000 colleges in
the country.  Now, more than ever, colleges need students just as much as
students need them.

Thanks for reading, and thank you for letting us come along
on your ride to college.     


  1. Janshi says

    As a current college student I think this is pretty great advice. If I was at the other end of the application process I’d be damn skippy to have found this.