Tough economic times prompt new questions for college visits


Many colleges have maintained or have even increased financial aid for the coming academic year in order to meet the needs of the increasing number of families unable to pay the full cost. Some schools continue to devote resources to financial aid so they can draw and retain desired students. Obviously pressure on endowments and college budgets means that the additional funds for financial aid had to come from somewhere. Most schools report that postponed building projects as well as staff and employee benefits have borne the brunt of it. Just last week, Harvard announced that it would cut its staff by 275 employees, a move that will impact nearly every one of the university’s 10 schools. The point is that while families should be pleased by the commitment to financial aid, it is prudent to look beyond and question of how these cuts might be impacting academic and athletic programs, and other offerings and amenities on college campuses.

So as you approach the college search, be sure to inquire about the fiscal health of the college or university. Colleges such as Antioch in Ohio and College of Santa Fe in New Mexico have recently closed their doors, unable to survive under their financial pressures. How unfortunate it must have been for their students who had to scramble to find a new home to finish their degree programs. Other colleges have taken less drastic measures, like cutting sports teams. Case in point: the student who had hoped to wrestle for MIT had better look elsewhere; the university will be eliminating 8 varsity teams come the fall, including wrestling.

Here are some suggested questions students and parents should be asking of college admission staff in order to feel confident that the academic, athletic and other programs they seek will not be cut from the budget in the foreseeable future.

1) What has been the college/university’s policy towards financial aid? How has it changed in this recession and what are they budgeting for the coming years?

2) Do they claim to be need-blind or need-aware and will they meet fully demonstrated need? Do they anticipate revising this policy in the future? Reed College in Oregon, for example, abandoned need-blind admissions this year and as a result, began to factor (or at least, now publicly) ability to pay into their admission decisions.

3) If you are eligible for need-based aid, find out the range of grant aid offered and the amount that students are typically expected to borrow. How has the school addressed its budgetary pressures and what steps have been taken to date to adjust? How have these steps impacted the college?

4) Ask specifically about staff cuts, in what departments, and what that has meant for courses and programs offered.

5) Has elimination of some courses or perhaps fewer sections offered impacted a student’s ability to fulfill requirements and graduate within 4 years (and while you’re at it, inquire about the 4 year graduation rate!)? It might be worth talking to students or to a faculty member of a particular department to get the real story.

If you are reluctant to ask these questions, keep in mind that you will be making a sizeable investment in your son or daughter’s college education and future. Like any other investment, this one entitles you to know how the money will be spent and what type of yields you can expect to receive.