Recession Means Cuts for Universities, Even Harvard

| by Mark Truman
If you haven't heard, things aren't going so well for the global economy.? The Dow has dropped to half its previous value in just a few months, unemployment is rising to possibly double digits, and consumer spending and confidence are at nearly all-time lows.

So how does this affect America's colleges and universities? Are they immune to the slings and arrows of outrageous global catastrophes?  Do their massive endowments shield them from the "real" world.  Unfortunately...the answer is an unequivocal "no."

Last month, Harvard announced that it was cutting the travel budget for its admission department by 50%, slashing all out-of-state travel programs and reducing individual visits to only local high schools. Admissions Dean William R. Fitzsimmons stressed that Harvard will still strive to reach out to interested students through their "joint" programs:

"Fitzsimmons said that joint travel trips—attended by larger numbers of students, parents, and counselors—have proven more effective in attracting prospective applicants. He added that Harvard will continue to visit 127 cities with along with Georgetown, the University of Pennsylvania, Duke, and Stanford.

"When asked if he was worried that these cuts would hurt Harvard’s perception of accessibility, Fitzsimmons acknowledged that this is “always a concern,” but said that this was one of the purposes of joint recruiting trips.

"Teaming up with these colleges may help attract students who might not attend an information session only for Harvard, Fitzsimmons said. Joint trips with Princeton and the University of Virginia to target students from lower income backgrounds are still on the books for November. - Harvard Crimson

In short, don't expect to meet a Harvard Admissions officer at your school's counseling office.? They simply don't have the money to come out and see you. Harvard isn't publicly funded, but its endowment lost over 20% of it's value in 2008.

On the other side of the spectrum, larger schools are finding that budget cuts are having a much more immediate and dire impact on their ability to enroll students. This year, San Jose State University was forced to deny admission to over 4,000 qualified applicants due to the state's budget crisis:

"University officials blame the budget for the enrollment cuts; overall the CSU system got 10 percent — $283 million — less than officials say they need. On Nov. 20, CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed asked every campus to cap enrollment because funding hasn't kept pace with a growing student body. For San Jose State, that meant a 9 percent reduction — 29,750 students in the 2009-10 school year, down from 32,750 in 2008-09.

That cap resulted in the first time the university has ever turned away applicants who met the minimum qualifications for attending the university.  Without time to plan for the cuts, San Jose State officials noted that they simply didn't accept the 4,400 most recent applicants. 

I feel pretty terrible for those kids who tried to get into a safety school at the last minute, only to be denied on the basis of a state budget crisis. Next year, San Jose promises to think more carefully about applicants and design some way of selecting the most qualified rather than the "first" qualified.

These trends are only becoming more common as schools get final budget numbers and endowment results. If you're looking at colleges for the first time now, it's time to start asking them "How are you planning on dealing with less money?" They might have answers that will shock you.