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College enrollment not picking up as fast as economy is

University Illinois  |  File photo

University of Illinois | File photo

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Updated: October 9, 2013 7:55PM



Despite an improving economy, colleges and universities are scrambling harder than ever to keep up enrollment as parents’ credit ratings and financial worries still reel from the recession, a new study reveals.

Chicago-area colleges and universities face similar concerns with tight money, and their reactions — turning to technology such as social media and online coursework — also mirror the national study’s findings, according to officials at the schools.

The study by audit firm KPMG found that students’ and parents’ inability to pay tuition was the top issue weighing on higher-education enrollment. Nearly six in 10 —58 percent — of 103 higher-education leaders in the survey listed it as their No. 1 concern compared with 49 percent who said so in last year’s survey.

Survey author Milford McGuirt, an audit leader for higher education at KPMG, said higher-education leaders “are keenly aware that parents have lower credit scores as a result of the economic downturn and are facing tighter loan underwriting standards.”

He said families are increasingly using online information, such as the U.S. Department of Education’s net price calculator (http://collegecost.ed.gov/netpricecenter.aspx) to compare the prices of various colleges and universities, and starting their decision-making from there.

Spokesmen for DeVry University, Governors State University, Illinois State University, the Illinois Institute of Technology, Morton College and the University of Illinois said in separate interviews that parents of students at their schools are worried about the cost of tuition and fees and about making sure they’re getting their money’s worth.

The schools have responded by focusing on getting the greatest possible amount of financial aid to students and scheduling coursework efficiently so the students can graduate on time, the spokesmen said.

Caryn Schnierle, associate vice provost for enrollment management at IIT, said families sometimes are denied parent loans because of the debt they’ve accrued in hard times.

“We have beefed up our website to show average scholarships and grants by different income levels,” Schnierle said. “We really encourage students to think about ‘net’ price rather than sticker price.”

The average amount of grants and scholarships this fall for IIT freshmen who are Illinois residents totals $30,000, nearly making up for the $38,512 yearly tuition.

IIT also offers 50 undergraduate and graduate degrees that let undergraduate students complete both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree simultaneously.

At Governors State University in south suburban University Park, officials discourage students from taking on big debt loads and make sure that families understand their eligibility for federal and state grants that require no payback, said spokeswoman Rhonda Brown.

At the University of Illinois, about half of the student body pays less than the “sticker” price by receiving financial aid, spokesman Tom Hardy said.

Last week, Illinois State University in Normal reported a 2.5 percent decline in enrollment, to 20,272, but a 71 percent increase in the number of student enrolled in off-campus class locations, to 348.

Some parents and students are shifting to community colleges.

Morton College, a commuter-only community college in Cicero, reported a 13.4 percent jump this fall in the number of credit hours for which its students enrolled.

A spokesman said the credit-hours increase reflected students’ desire for workforce training, with courses in fire science and supply-chain management leading the upswing.

sguy@suntimes.com

@sandraguy



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