As Recession Persists, Fall 2010 Will Be the 'Hard One,' College Presidents Say

January 06, 2010

When Paul Hennigan, president of Point Park University, in Pittsburgh, asked a room full of small-college presidents here whether they were nervous about meeting enrollment targets for the next academic year, the answer was a resounding "Yes!"

Most of the 60 or so college presidents who gathered for an open forum on the economy at a meeting of the Council of Independent Colleges here this week, as the recession crossed the two-year mark, said they had come through this past fall better than they'd hoped. They said they had met their enrollment targets or surpassed them — particularly by adding more graduate students and adult learners. But it's next academic year the presidents are most worried about.

"There is a theory that fall 2010 is going to be the hard one," said Mr. Hennigan. The college presidents allowed The Chronicle to attend the forum on the condition that it not quote anyone but Mr. Hennigan by name so that the presidents could talk openly about their situations.

One of the presidents reported that "niche" markets — selective academic programs that are unique to a campus — are still doing well. Athletics programs are also jammed with students, the presidents reported. A few presidents said they were hoping to bolster their enrollments by redoubling their efforts to capture transfer students from community colleges, where so many more undergraduates start out.

"We have shifted two or three recruiters to community-college recruitment," said one president. She said she had been trying to work closely with the president of the community college in her area and had made sure coaches at her college knew coaches at the community college to encourage athletes to transfer.

Indeed, community colleges are posing the biggest competition for some small, private liberal-arts colleges. "Parents are increasingly reluctant to invest in a kid who doesn't know where she wants to end up," said another president. "The competition from community colleges is worse than it's ever been."

Mr. Hennigan also asked the presidents at the forum if they had "crisis fatigue." And he wondered how they were keeping morale up on their campuses. One new president, who inherited financial problems that included a $1-million budget cut, said she had tried to be "transparent" with faculty and staff members.

"I opened up a dedicated e-mail that comes straight to me, and I respond to each individually," she said. "People are much more understanding when they know what's going on."