Survey indicates growing concern about enrollment, cost of higher education

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Higher education officials are growing increasingly concerned about their ability to maintain current levels of student enrollment, in part due to the rising price of a college degree, according to the results of a survey released last week.

Public concern about the cost of higher education has thus far focused on the growing financial strain of attending college. But the results of this survey, conducted by audit, tax and advisory firm KPMG, suggest that some college leaders are also worried that rising costs will keep students from coming to campus in the first place.

Of the 103 college and university officials surveyed, 37 percent reported being “very concerned” about maintaining current enrollment levels at their colleges, compared with 23 percent who expressed high concern in the same survey last year. 58 percent of survey respondents who reported concerns cited student and parent inability to pay tuition as the top factor affecting enrollment.

UC officials, however, say the UC system is not among those institutions counting student applications with anxiety.

While the number of enrolled undergraduates at UC campuses changes slightly each year, many campuses recently have seen an increase in enrollment. The system as a whole increased enrollment by 1 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to a UC report.

“We haven’t had difficulties in maintaining enrollment,” said UC spokesperson Dianne Klein in an email. “In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. Each year, we receive record high numbers of applicants — far more than we can enroll. The number of students that we can enroll is linked to state funding. We have the physical capacity to enroll more students, but campuses are setting their enrollment targets based on the funds available to educate those students.”

A spokesperson for KPMG said the firm was not authorized to release the names or institutions of those interviewed. The firm said its researchers polled 41 leaders from public institutions and 62 from private institutions.

Anne MacLachlan, a senior researcher for the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education, said that although the KPMG survey indicates an increase in concerns about college enrollment, it is not specific enough to yield informative results. She said declining enrollment in higher education is a worry that probably is confined to small, obscure private colleges. She said well-known universities such as UC Berkeley do not have a problem maintaining enrollment, despite a tenuous financial climate.

“I think the survey’s claim is outrageous,” MacLachlan said. “All of the good universities have plenty of applications. And even those we are inclined to see as not as high as us, such as the CSUs, can’t admit all those they want to because of budget cuts. So many people are applying.”

Libby Rainey is the lead higher education reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @rainey_l.

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