With the job market buffeted by economic tempests the past year, record numbers of students are applying to many Kentucky four-year colleges and universities for the fall. Larger enrollment often occurs during recessions, but some admissions directors are casting a wary eye at the numbers.
The question is whether application figures are being driven up by students applying at multiple schools. Also, in the current economy they may be shopping around for as much financial help as they can get, and looking at colleges closer to home.
The real test will come over the next few months as bills come due and students and their families commit to a single institution. Those numbers will paint a truer picture of the economy’s impact on Kentucky’s college enrollment.
In the 2007-08 school year, Kentucky lost 0.2 percent of its enrollment, one of the rare drops in the nation, which as a whole experienced a 2.2 percent rise in enrollment, according to data recently released by the State Higher Education Executive Officers. Only four other states lost enrollment: South Carolina (1.3 percent), Tennessee (1.1 percent), Oklahoma (0.7 percent) and Louisiana (0.5 percent).
Ironically, the decrease came on the 10th anniversary of legislation passed by the General Assembly setting a state goal to reach the national average of adults with degrees by 2020. Kentucky has made strides in this area, jumping from 18 percent of the adult population having bachelor’s degrees in 1992 to 24 percent in 2007, said Robert Sexton, founding executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. The caveat, though, is that nationwide the number has been increasing as well, leaving Kentucky ranked 44th in the country despite its substantial gain.
“The younger population is going to college at a much higher rate, but Kentucky’s 50-plus population is not well educated, driving down the state’s numbers as a whole,” Sexton said.
Part of Kentucky’s challenge may be rising tuition rates. Although commonwealth tuitions historically have been comparatively low, average in-state resident tuition rose 83 percent from the fall of 2001 to 2007; nationally, that figure was only 35 percent, according to a report from the office of state Auditor Crit Luallen. For the upcoming school year, state tuition increases have been capped at between 3 percent and 5 percent. But students and their families are still feeling the bite, especially in these difficult financial times.
Steve Byrn, the director of admissions at Eastern Kentucky University, said application numbers are up 10 percent over last year. But he is concerned tuition hikes may keep enrollment from following the tradition of rising during a recession, particularly in Kentucky, which ranks about 45th nationally in per capita income.
“The cost of a college education is outstripping the government financial aid available to individuals,” he said. “And as financial aid becomes harder to obtain, the family contribution is becoming larger every year.”
The areas many EKU students come from are being particularly hard hit by the recession, Byrn said, and he thinks future enrollment will decrease. Many EKU students help pay their own way, often dropping out a semester here and there to work, which also is much tougher to do during a recession when the jobs aren’t there.
“There is a lot of uncertainty right now and a lot of questions about what the bottom line is going to be,” he said.
One thing certain, though, is that the applicant pool is among the brightest admission directors said they’ve ever seen. And what a lot of these higher-end students are looking for, it seems, is the best scholarship money they can get from individual schools.
University of Louisville Admissions Director Jenny Sawyer said more students than ever are seeking scholarships and being proactive about getting what they need to attend college. “Students are calling back and asking us to re-evaluate our scholarship packages to them,” she said.
At the University of Kentucky, the applicant pool has risen 10 percent to a record high and is the strongest academically the school has ever had, said Don Witt, assistant provost for enrollment management. He credits UK’s rise in quality and quantity of applications partially to broad-based recruiting efforts, in state and out of state. Still, Witt is not sure the application numbers are going to translate into higher enrollment figures.
“It’s tough right now to differentiate between our recruiting efforts and what’s happening with the economy,” he said. “The question is: Are more students applying at different colleges to see what they can get?”
Kentucky students who stay in state can receive KEES (Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship) money. KEES, funded by Kentucky Lottery proceeds, provides Kentucky students with scholarships of up to $1,000 a year depending upon their high school grade point average and ACT scores. For a top student, this could mean an additional $4,000 total toward college. This might make staying in Kentucky a more attractive prospect to better students who were considering out-of-state colleges.
“It is a very good deal to attend public university in Kentucky,” said Robert King, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. “Still, there is not enough money to cover all the needs. Campuses are working overtime to make resources available and accommodate qualified students with financial needs.”
Witt said UK is doing all it can to help students and their families find ways to help pay for college, including bringing their financial aid employees to college recruitment events and hiring a financial aid ombudsman. The financial aid office is fielding many calls from families whose financial situations have changed due to jobs lost or pay cuts since they filed their federal financial aid forms, known as FASFA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), said Lynda George, director of student financial aid at UK.
Student borrowing also is increasing, making gift money such as grants and scholarships a much lower percentage of all financial aid, George said. Recent statistics show students graduating college now owe an average of $22,000, she said. Most are borrowing through federal direct loan programs.
“We haven’t had students who couldn’t find the necessary financing,” she said.
The calls about financial aid also have increased at UofL, said Sawyer, falling into line with the national figures that show a 20 percent increase in FASFA.
The number of applications this year, meanwhile, has been flat at UofL after five years of strong growth, said Sawyer. But that anomaly might be more by design than anything else.
“Our goal is to keep the freshman class the same size because we are not in the position to grow,” said Sawyer. “We’ve run out of space.”
Though applications are steady, Sawyer said she has noticed a change in the fabric of who’s applying to UofL. The school is receiving more applications from transfer students looking to finish up degrees and from veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill. She expects fewer out-of-state students and more in-state students and for the final decisions to be made much later than they would in less challenging economic times.
At Morehead State, Assistant Vice President for Communications and Marketing Jamie Hornbuckle said applications are up 5 percent, from both traditional and non-traditional students, but she’s skeptical that will carry over to enrollment. Prospective students are looking around, casting their nets to see what they come back with, she agreed.
“We have seen trends where the economy dips and there’s a bump in enrollment numbers,” she said. “But my feeling is that this time the economy has changed so drastically that people are nervous about what to do and are spending more time looking at all the options.”
Hornbuckle thinks a lot of potential students are discounting college right now because of the expense and the economy. She said what many of them don’t realize is how much financial aid is available.
Morehead, too, is seeing a higher academic profile among its applicants, which Hornbuckle attributes to a concerted effort to attract better students and to the college hosting the state’s Governor’s Scholars Program.
King, of the CPE, said Kentucky is rising to the challenge of helping its students financially, moreso than many other states. About 85 percent of the student population here receives some type of financial help, with 50 percent receiving money from the state; only 15 percent pay the actual sticker price, he said.
This help is integral in building a more educated populace and workforce.
“Without improving the state’s standing in educational attainment,” Sexton said, “it is difficult for Kentucky to move forward, particularly in this economy.”
KCTCS Setting Records; Demand Is Double Capacity in Allied Health
While admissions directors at four-year colleges wonder whether increased applications will translate into increased enrollment, Kentucky’s community colleges are seeing their numbers climb as students look for a fast and effective way to find training for decent jobs in this flagging economy.
This spring Kentucky Community and Technical College Systems saw a 3 percent increase of 7,900 students statewide, reaching a record enrollment.
KCTCS Chancellor Keith Bird said he thinks many of the state’s community colleges will soon be pushing capacity as more adults look to community colleges for retraining. (Jefferson Community and Technical College’s downtown Louisville campus is already full, with no room to expand.)
KCTCS begins offering its new Career Transitions program this summer to Kentuckians who have become unemployed since October. It helps them with financial aid counseling, placement assessment, course enrollment and training to maximize individual employment opportunities. There are 50 percent tuition waivers for up to six credit hours per term for summer and fall 2009.
Right now, allied health programs, such as nursing and medical technology, at community colleges across the state only have space for 50 percent of the people applying. “We are trying to open more programs if we can find the space, faculty and equipment. People are looking for better jobs, which increases our challenge of serving them within our budget parameters,” said Bird.
Robert Sexton, founding executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said programs like allied health are where the state’s educational growth is and needs to be taking place.
“The silver lining of this recession is that adults are going back to get degrees or training, particularly in the medical and health fields,” he said. “These are solid, middle-income jobs.”
The applicants to allied health are primarily women who have lost their jobs or are looking for careers with more stability. These and other job-training programs are an entry point into the educational pipeline for older adults, an age group in Kentucky where educational attainment lags the most, which helps the state toward its goal of a better-educated populace, said Sexton.
Meanwhile, KCTCS is working with Workforce Investment Boards across the state to develop other short-term credential programs that provide skills that fill specific needs in the state’s workforce. “We are concerned with getting businesses and students what they need in the shortest time possible,” said Bird. “Time is money.”
Bird cited private proprietary colleges such as Sullivan University for their ability to quickly design and implement a program that serves an immediate need. In a bold move, Sullivan University opened its own pharmacy college – its first doctorate program – in Louisville after researching where the greatest healthcare need would be in the next 15 years. Sullivan was able to act fast, with less than four years transpiring between the idea and the school opening in July of last year, said A.R. Sullivan, chancellor and founder of Sullivan University.
Public colleges and universities have to go through so much bureaucracy that by the time the program is implemented the need might no longer be there, he said. Sullivan University, which has campuses in Louisville, Lexington and Fort Knox, can quickly position itself to work with employers such as Microsoft to fill specific needs.
Bird said he wants KCTCS to be able to do the same thing for students but for much more affordable prices.
“We want to be champions of access,” he said, adding that he is not so much focused on awarding degrees as he is on providing needed, quantifiable skills in an efficient and practical manner, whether it’s through simulator labs, online programs or other ways that stretch beyond the typical four walls of the classroom.
“We have to be agile enough to make this happen,” said Bird.