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Finances put applicants in a tough spot

When Elizabeth Mucha was an infant, her parents invested in bonds that they planned to cash in when it came time to pay for her college education.

But Mucha, now a senior at Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago, said the bonds will not cover the cost of her education unless she receives financial aid. As the global financial system falters, she worries that colleges will not have enough money to provide.

Mucha is not the only one concerned about the effect of the economic crisis on America's colleges and college students. As the economy stumbles, both colleges and families are facing a financial crunch - and high school seniors are caught in the middle.

"There's a double whammy going on," said Edward St. John, professor of higher education at the University of Michigan.

As many families have seen their college savings funds disappear, so too have many universities seen their savings and budgets dwindle.

"I think it's going to be, from a student's point of view, a somewhat unattractive year to apply to college," said Caroline Hoxby, professor of economics at Stanford University. Because of the nation's economic woes, she said, families will be more concerned with financial aid - but colleges may be less able to meet students' needs.

Moreover, applications could increase because a bad job market makes more people choose to go to school, Hoxby said.

Dean of Admission Jim Miller '73 said that in his 25 years of experience in college admissions, "this is as much uncertainty as I've seen."

"So far this has been primarily an asset event and not a job-loss event," Miller said. He added, however, that many parents might be planning for the worst when considering the financial viability of supporting their kids' higher education plans.

Many public universities say their applicant pools have increased significantly for admission in fall 2009.

Ashley Memory, senior assistant director of undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that although applications have been steadily increasing in recent years, first-deadline admissions this year increased by 15 percent over last year. "That is a big jump," she said.

Curious about the economy's effect on the jump in applications, the admissions office at UNC sent surveys to first-deadline applicants asking them to evaluate the importance of the economy to their decision to apply. Of the 6,020 students who responded to the survey, 917 said they "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that the economy was a factor in their decision, Memory said.

Memory said UNC would not know the application situation in full until the school's second admissions deadline on Jan. 15. As for whether the increase in this year's applications was related to the economic crisis, she said, "It's a little early for us to draw a definite conclusion, but we can't rule it out."

Jim Blackburn, director of enrollment management services for the California State University system, wrote in an e-mail that the applicant pool has increased by 6 to 10 percent for fall 2009, even though Cal State reduced its allocation of free applications this year.

Blackburn said the increase in the number of applications was "probably related" to the economic crisis. He said Cal State saw a similar spike in applications during the economic downturn in the early 90s.

St. John said he expected some students to lower their expectations for college, choosing not to apply to more selective, expensive institutions because they believe the schools are out of their reach, financially speaking. But he recommended that students aim high.

"The better place they can go, the more likely they are to get money," he said. Despite falling endowments, more selective schools remain better equipped to provide financial aid, he said.

"We're in a very good position to make Brown affordable," said Miller, who said he is working to reassure families of prospective students that the financial aid the University promises this year will be maintained.

"We get a lot of 'what if' questions" from families whose children will attend college in the next few years, Miller said. "They're worried about what (the economic crisis) might mean. It's still unclear what it does mean."

Hoxby said the type of student more likely to be affected by the crisis is "the student who's right on the margin of going to college or not going to college."

Such students, like the vast majority of Americans seeking four-year degrees, typically attend schools that do not have large endowments or research programs, leaving them more vulnerable to fluctuations in revenue. St. John and Hoxby said these are the schools likely to be hit hardest by the financial crisis.

Still, Hoxby said she expected more of these students to choose to attend college because in a recession the opportunity cost of attending college is relatively low. "It's probably a healthy decision," she said. By the time students graduate, the job market may have improved, and students with degrees will be more attractive to employers.

Mucha, for her part, said she was applying to "more schools than I would have otherwise," including state schools, something she"never thought I would have ever done."

She is also applying to schools that offer merit-based aid and schools with large endowments, she said. Though she felt they would be more competitive in terms of admission, she said, they were also more likely to offer her good financial aid packages.


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