April 29, 2006 in City

Applications slip at region’s public colleges

By The Spokesman-Review

Applications to the region’s public universities are down significantly this spring, and officials are trying to figure out why.

Though next fall’s enrollments may still catch up with past years, as of right now, applications are down at Eastern Washington University, Washington State University and the University of Idaho.

Meanwhile, applications to private schools Gonzaga and Whitworth are up dramatically – though Gonzaga’s seeing fewer applications from Washington students.

As the trend unfolded this spring, admissions officers were surprised.

“All the demographics say they should be there,” said Julie McCulloh, dean of admissions at GU. “None of us were expecting a decline” in Washington applications.

Washington state officials are compiling records from all schools to see whether fewer students applied – or whether each student applied to fewer colleges. .

“We hope to figure out more of this as we move through the cycle,” said Michelle Whittingham, associate vice president for enrollment services at EWU.

Whittingham and other enrollment officials cited several possible reasons for the difference, though none has been substantiated. It’s possible the state’s high school graduating class was smaller than predicted, more Washington students applied to out-of-state schools or the recent increase in application fees from $36-$38 to $50 cut the number of schools families considered.

“Maybe families said instead of spending $200 (on applications) we’re going to spend $150,” Whittingham said.

Vicki McCracken, associate vice president and associate vice provost of enrollment services at WSU, studied price sensitivity as an economics professor. “Despite the fact that $12 … is a very small amount relative to the cost of higher education, people frequently react to small changes,” she said.

The problem is most pronounced at EWU, which may wind up with a smaller freshman class next fall and a resulting drop in state funding. The school, whose which enrollments have increased 18 consecutive quarters, has accepted 20 percent fewer freshmen than it did last year at this time. Freshman applications are down about 16 percent, from 4,040 last year to 3,398 so far this spring.

WSU’s figures are down from last year by about 3 percent, but it’s the second year in a row that applications have slid.

University administrators said the problem seems particular to this state, and they haven’t heard much about the problem elsewhere, though it’s early. At the University of Idaho, freshman applications are down slightly, but that follows an unusual spike in applications last year. Enrollments in several key colleges on the Moscow campus have grown steadily for years, they said.

On the other hand, applications to Spokane’s two private colleges, Whitworth and Gonzaga, have continued to grow rapidly. Whitworth’s applications have more than doubled since 2000, and they went from 2,062 last year to 2,675 this spring.

Fred Pfursich, dean of enrollment services at Whitworth, said he’s not sure what’s behind the recent surge, but notes the school increased efforts to bring visitors to campus last year. Whitworth, which is opening a dorm next fall, will accept a freshman class that’s about 10 percent larger than last year, he said.

He said applications and enrollment, like a lot of things in higher education, differ greatly among institutions.

“Even in Spokane, where we have Whitworth, Gonzaga and Eastern … we’re all similar in some ways and yet we all have different experiences from year to year,” he said.

Gonzaga’s applications have risen 80 percent since 2000, and went from 4,321 last year to 4,915 this spring. McCulloh said the school’s high profile in basketball has helped promote the rest of the university, and that demographic trends in states like California have helped drive interest.

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