Christian Diaz, Staff Writer (cdiaz@wwc)
Early decision applications are in, and according to Admissions reports, there are 33 pecent fewer than there were at this time last year. Although it is too early to be sure, the possibility of low enrollment coupled with a low retention rate threatens the school with budgetary troubles within the next school year.
Those that are hopeful concede that a stagnant economy is contributing to the low levels of commitment in early decision applications and that students who might have otherwise applied through early decision will now wait to apply during the holidays. However, there is the looming possibility that fewer applications in total will have a ripple effect throughout the school, results of which may vary from program cuts to lower school ranking by organizations that gauge the school’s attractiveness, leading to even fewer applications.
“The next major hurdle will be in February when regular application deadlines are due,” said Director of Admissions and Advancement Richard Blomgren. “What we’ll try to see in December and January is: are these students who used to apply [through early decision], are they now applying regular decision? If applications pick up and all that this means is that students are putting off making a commitment to the regular cycle of February, then we are going to be fine. If we never [recover] those, if there are 30 students who decided to apply through early decision somewhere else and we are never going to get them into our fold – then that’s a different issue.”
Receiving fewer applications is not a problem exclusive to Warren Wilson. As the economic recovery appears to have stalled, families are thinking much harder about where they can afford to send their children to school.
“The domino effect of this recession not being a short-lived event – that housing prices are not going to bounce back tomorrow, that peoples’ equity and what they can take out on a second mortgage to help pay for college is now in question,” Blomgren continued. “I think we can see families who used to be comfortable that they had a $300,000-400,000 house and that they were going to tap into that and use that as a source for funding their child’s education no longer have the guarantee that their house can do that.We are living in a time when going to college is a major life decision, much like buying a house or getting married.”
Low enrollment would affect the overall budget of the school which depends on tuition money to sustain itself. The school needs to maintain a certain amount of students in order to function as effectively as it has, and the magic number is 925. Although low numbers of early decision applicants have caused some worry, staff members are confident that the school will meet this benchmark. The school has hit its budgetary number every year for the past 15 years, according to Blomgren.
School application and enrollment has fluctuated consistently throughout the last several years, often reaching record highs. This has allowed the school to be more selective when choosing who to admit. If applications are few, the school might have to lower academic standards in order to meet its budgetary needs. Where the school might now refuse applicants with a GPA lower than 3.0, the standard may have to be readjusted to 2.75.
Ultimately, low application numbers change the way the school recruits students and prepares for the next school year.
“Maybe we’re used to getting our class secure in April, and now we have to wait until June,” said Blomgren. “If enrollment does turn out to be low then we have to adapt the budget to our enrollment. There is some flexibility and solutions for enrollment. We may have to extend the deadline.”
The other definitive piece of this problem is the dismal retention rate, an aspect of Warren Wilson that new Dean of Students Deborah Myers intends to improve.
“It costs a lot more money to recruit new students, find them, get them here, orient them,” said Myers. “It’s cheaper to keep students that we already have. If we do a better job of keeping students then we can invest in the students we have rather than going out to find more students to take their place. I think there’s an economic reality.”
There are several members of the Warren Wilson community who believe that low retention numbers are a manifestation of the culture at this school, which according to many attracts “drifters” and “seekers.”
“In Admissions,” said Blomgren, “we talk about a retention reality as opposed to a retention problem. Are there steps we can take to increase retention? Yes, and we need to. Are there some things that we need to accept and embrace and say: You know? That’s the nature of our product. We’re not a cookie-cutter college. We’re not a rubber-stamp kind of place.”
However, students must express their reasons for dropping out, and their reasons often contradict this theory of retention and a distinct Warren Wilson culture.
“I think there is some truth to the school attracting ‘seekers,’” said Myers. “Often times students feel a need to go and do something in the world. There probably is an element to that but I don’t feel that’s the only reason students are leaving. During the semester I talk with just about every student who withdraws during the course of the semester, and I have seen that but there are plenty of other reasons students leave.”
Just what steps need to be taken to improve retention is up for debate. An outside consultant has been recruited by the school to provide an objective assessment of how the school adds or detracts from student retention. Trends show that the school experiences substantial dropout rates at the conclusion of sophomore year.
“I’m hoping that we get some good answers. I think a lot of our students are leaving when they are sophomores,” said Myers. “We can probably boost up help for students figuring out majors or life and career paths and how that might apply. I think we need to figure out as an institution why it is that students stay and why some students leave. What is it about this place that makes those student who stay want to stay and finish?”
More cynically, some students and professors question whether or not a liberal arts degree is worth the hefty investment anymore. Technical or “hard” science degrees not only lead to higher wages directly out of school but also carry more prestige, even on campus, leading some to question the value of an education at an institution like Warren Wilson.
“It is hard to put a dollar figure on critical thinking skills that you not only use in your job but in your everyday life, and the ability to analyze and have a deep understanding of the world,” said Myers. “I think that is a life-changing experience. It really impacts how a person views the world for their whole life. No question, I think it’s worth it.”
Earlier this year, the WABASH Survey raised some flags concerning retention and enrollment at the college.
“It was very sobering to have this team of outsiders come and look at us and tell us that our retention rate is dismal,” says Biology Professor Jeff Holmes. “It raises concern about whether or not our campus can remain sustainable, especially now that enrollment has flattened. We are trying to understand what students are leaving and why they are leaving and what can we do to address that without compromising our values as a college.”