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An early early decision

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 9, 2009 - Like clockwork, articles will roll in this spring about how the economy is affecting college enrollment decisions. Expect plenty of interviews with admissions officers and financial aid directors plus maybe a few quotes from students talking about how they decided to pass on the pricey college and head to State School U.

An early (yet admittedly unscientific) indication of concern over higher education costs is interest in pre-college summer programs, which give high school students a taste of residential college life and in many cases a few credits to take home with them.

Parents often view these programs as a foot in the door to competitive colleges. And while the colleges stress that admission into a summer program doesn’t ensure admission into the institution, in many cases summer students are accepted at a higher rate than the overall applicant pool (largely because they already have been vetted once.)

But in tough economic times, will some parents view the pre-college program as a luxury they can’t afford?

Marsha Hussung, director of Washington University’s High School Summer Scholars program, said she doesn’t expect applications to drop significantly from last year. But her gut feeling is that enrollment numbers will slip – largely a product of families feeling strapped for cash this spring.

The price tag of Washington U.’s program: $5,935 for five weeks. That covers things like tuition and labs fees (up to seven units of college credit), residence hall housing, meals and social activities, but not travel and textbook costs.

Last summer’s enrollment total was 118, down from 142 in 2007. Applications in 2008 dipped to 182, a decrease of about 20 from a typical year.

“We were already seeing the downturn in the economy at play,” Hussung said.

This year’s applicants have until May or June (depending on the academic session) to get their paperwork to Wash. U. Hussung said she’s received 84 applications so far, which is a slightly more than had arrived this time a year ago. But she’s hesitant to make a comparison between 2008 and 2009 because the program this year dropped its non-refundable $35 application fee that had been charged to students who applied after March 1.

“We knew it was going to be a tough year and this might be a barrier for them to apply,” Hussung said.

The upshot is that there’s no financial incentive for students to apply early this year, meaning that there could be a rush of late applications. Another change this year is that students finishing their sophomore year of high school can apply. Previously, the program was only for juniors. Hussung said that while the change wasn't driven by economic concerns, “this seemed to be the year to try it knowing numbers might be down.”

Typically, about 40 percent of applicants request financial aid. Hussung said she’s been surprised to see that number remain the same thus far this year.

What has increased is the number of families making well over $100,000 who are applying for aid. In an increasing number of these applications, students explain that a parent has been laid off recently, which will lead to a decrease in family earnings.

In most years, households bringing in more than $90,000 adjusted gross income wouldn’t be considered for aid, Hussung said. But that could change this summer.

The scholars program, which is self-sustaining, doesn’t get financial aid money from the university. Hussung won’t know until she receives all the applications how much aid she can offer.

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