Understanding Enrollment: Why Did Conn Come Up Short?

Recent declines in Conn’s enrollment numbers present an interesting situation for the school, especially when compared to national trends in the college industry. With a plethora of statistics available about American colleges, numbers on admissions are a particularly captivating facet.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which compiles data from 97% of all higher education enrollments at Title IV degree-granting institutions in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, 38 states saw a decrease in higher education enrollment between 2016 and 2017. Only 13 reported increases.

In the spring of 2017, four-year, private, nonprofit institutions in the U.S. reported 3,703,320 enrolled students, a 0.2% increase from the spring of 2016. However, undergraduate enrollment at schools like Conn (four-year, private, nonprofit institutions) in 2017 is reported to be 2,589,207, a -0.70% difference from last year.

Conn reviewed 5,434 applications in 2017. The acceptance rate for the year was 38%, with 445 students enrolling. The College enrolled 472 students in 2016, 480 in 2015, and 501 in 2014. Several other private liberal arts institutions experienced a considerable increase in their applicant numbers. This dichotomy begs a complicated question: why not Conn? This is not a glaring difference, but do the applicant and enrollment numbers represent a random hiccup or a concerning trend for Conn?

Dean of the College Jefferson Singer provided insight into the College’s historical relationship with enrollment numbers. In the early 2000s, the College reevaluated its admission goals and decided to increase target class size to 500 students per year. Consequently, budget predictions and decisions were made based on the anticipated revenue from 500 students. Despite this plan, Conn has rarely met this goal of 500. Said Singer, “so ultimately that wasn’t, maybe, the most effective strategy for us, to keep projecting at a number we weren’t realizing.”

Given the College’s inability to consistently yield 500 students per class, the College, according to Singer, is “projecting now for a much smaller number than 500, in the 450-470 range.”

Compared to several other similarly sized and ranked institutions, Conn’s admissions numbers stand out. Other NESCAC institutions received greater applicant pools and reported more selective rates of acceptance.

Colby College exhibited notably impressive numbers. They received 11,190 applications and only admitted 15.8% of them, marking 2017 as a record low for acceptance in the school’s history. Colby and Conn share some admissions qualities but diverge on others: both, for example, have eliminated their supplemental essays from the application process in recent years. Conn is test-optional (allows applicant to submit test scores, but does not require them), while Colby remains test-flexible (requires scores, but accepts applicant’s choice of SAT, ACT, or SAT subject test scores). But one difference gives Colby a hefty advantage over many of its competitors: there is no application fee. This exemplifies a contrast with Conn, where applying cost $60 in 2016. According to Dean of Admissions Andy Strickler, however, the College plans to eliminate the application fee for this upcoming year.

The complex layers of college admissions extend even further. With 5,678 applications, Hamilton College’s 2017 application numbers were closer to Conn’s than other NESCACs. However, Hamilton only accepted 1,375 students, 24% of its total pool. When compared, Conn and Hamilton’s numbers highlight another important consideration of admissions statistics: the struggle between selectivity and yield. If a school is highly selective, it must be insured with a high yield rate in order to have a successful enrollment number. Singer noted that increased efforts to draw in more applications “may not undermine the quality [of applicants], but it could threaten the yield.”

The College wants the acceptance rate to be as low as possible due to competition between schools of similar prestige. In order to achieve a lower rate, however, the school must incentivize prospective students to submit applications. Moreover, the College must be confident in its ability to enroll the appropriate number of accepted students, which is difficult to pin down.

A serious implication to consider when evaluating these admission numbers is the College’s budget. With an endowment of almost $300 million, the College’s spend rule (the percent of the endowment which is permitted to be put towards operating expenses) is typically set at 5%, equating to $15 million per year.

The College considers yearly adjustments in its operating in order to accommodate the fluctuation of revenue. Singer mentioned that “ultimately that may mean some reorganization of the numbers of people that are here,” adding, “that’s meant to be a slow and careful process, that everyone will have input into thinking about.”

Speaking to the school’s finances, Vice President of Finance and Administration Rich Madonna and Director of Financial Aid Sean Martin addressed students in Coffee Grounds on Oct. 25 about how’ tuition revenue is distributed. A “tuition-driven institution,” as phrased by Madonna and Martin, Conn is constantly balancing its revenue and operating costs. Similar to Singer, Madonna addressed how enrollment numbers impact the College’s finances, saying that the College is responsible for figuring out how to live with and adjust to their numbers each year. Madonna and Martin also noted that despite changes in tuition and revenue, the College remains dedicated to meeting students’ full demonstrated need when allocating financial aid.

It is important to also consider the nature of the college industry. When one or several competing schools change their methods of advertising to prospective students, the decision often forces schools in both the physical and competitive vicinity to change correspondingly. A large number of the decisions the College makes, Singer stated, “end up being [made in order] to maintain our position with our peers who are making those choices as well.” The removal of the application fee at Conn is one example of this phenomenon. Another is the fact that starting with the Class of 2021, Conn now offers merit-based tuition discounts, following the model of similar liberal arts schools. In June, the Hechinger Report mentioned this pattern of incentivizing students with increased aid, noting that “admissions departments have been responding by showering applicants with discounts.” According to the article, ten years ago, the average aid award was 38 cents to each dollar. In 2017, however, this ratio has risen to 51 cents per dollar. Due to federal antitrust laws, colleges are unable to collude and discuss how to readjust tuition prices and financial aid favorably for students.

Changing college trends are especially visible in people’s expectations of the ideal college experience. When students, and their parents, visit the school, their perception is largely visual. “What a dining hall should offer, what a college center should offer, what an athletic center should offer,” Singer stated, have changed considerably within the past few decades.

As tuition rises, people expect more from their institutions, and schools are pressured to cater to these high standards. When this happens, schools with larger endowments have an advantage, as they are able to afford adjustments. Singer points to the frustration of this pattern because “that’s not necessarily about what happens in the classroom… ultimately the important aspect of what you’re coming to the college for is the interaction between you and a faculty member.”

Currently, Conn is looking to boost its appeal. But  advancements require funds, and if the school is not bringing in as much revenue via tuition as hoped, how can appeal be achieved?

One area of potential benefit for the College, according to Singer, is the Connections curriculum. As the school weighs more emphasis on the recent change, Singer hopes prospective students will begin to visualize the benefits they would receive. “It’s not just a new wrapper or something superficial, it’s actually a radical change in the quality of education that we’re offering, and it’s hard for people to grasp that yet because it’s new,” Singer asserts. Conn’s administration seems to be confident in the Connections curriculum’s ability to entice prospective students in their quest to “reinvent the liberal arts.”

For the time being, camels are not rapidly ascending the endangered species list. Monitoring the College’s finances will be interesting, however, given the necessary budget cuts to supplement for would-be-tuition revenue. Perhaps the Admissions Office will be able to produce a more meaningful analysis of numbers in 2018, once the College has received another year of applications. Time will tell.