Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Just Like Your Parents Always Told You

I admit that I rarely discuss higher education  as it relates to the nonprofit sector. But now it seems that some of the most interesting effects of the recession are unfolding on college campuses, or rather, in the admissions offices of college campuses. 

As The New York Times highlighted last week, "Colleges [are] facing a financial landscape they have never seen before - [they] are trying to figure out how many students to accept, and how many students will accept them."

It seems that the usual predictive enrollment systems have been chucked out the window. As the dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College in Ohio told The Times, "Trying to hit those numbers is like trying to hit a hot tub when you're skydiving from 30,000 feet."

As colleges and universities cope with whatever massive hits their respective endowments have taken -- undoubtedly making sweeping budget cuts -- it seems that we may simultaneously observe an increasing number of people looking to invest in education. My own alma mater, Wesleyan University, recently reported a eye-popping 22% increase in the number of applicants this year, allowing the school to expand next year's freshman class to loosen a tightening budget.

How individuals and families ultimately respond to acceptance letters (especially those that come without generous financial aid packages) is, of course, the unpredictable piece. But after speaking to the Program Manager of a major English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program yesterday, I wonder if we won't see a general increase in educational investments across the board. In the past six months she tells me her enrollment numbers have increased significantly, not just because individuals are out of work, but because they feel that there is no better time than today to increase their skills and make a safe investment in their future.

What do you think? Will people increase investments in education in the face of an uncertain financial future? How will this affect nonprofit educational providers of all types?

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