The talk this week at an annual gathering of college admissions officers and high school counselors included the usual topics, like how to deal with “difficult” parents and the names of hot student prospects. But the conversations — in panel discussions, in hallways and over crab cakes — always seemed to circle around to one subject: the economy.
High school counselors said that some parents who in other years worried mostly about whether their children could get into a particular college were now concerned about whether they could afford the price tag.
Admissions officers said they feared further price increases and cuts in university budgets, perhaps even in classes. They wondered whether this would create significant dips in yield, the number of accepted applicants who then choose to attend. For those at private colleges, one anxious worry prevailed: Will students even apply?
“We’re fearful,” said Paul M. Driscoll, the dean of admissions of the University of Redlands in California, a private college that already had a 3 percent drop in applicants for the new freshman class, and an increase in families seeking financial aid.
Both college officials and high school counselors here said the full brunt of the economic crisis was not felt in the most recent admissions cycle — because families had long ago set college plans in motion, and had largely held to that course. In many instances, colleges reported this past spring that they received roughly as many applications in 2009 as they had in 2008, and that there were no significant dips in yield.
But as the 5,000 officers and counselors moved among various panel discussions here — including a packed session on changes in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa, the government’s main financial aid form — the conferees expressed concern that this latest admissions cycle could be much grimmer, for colleges and some families alike.
Ann Bowe McDermott, director of admissions at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, said the economy and its many ripple effects were the main subject of a meeting on Wednesday attended by admissions officers from more than two dozen Jesuit colleges.
“Affordability is something everyone is concerned about,” said Ms. McDermott, whose institution’s tuition, board and other fees already exceed more than $50,000 annually for full-paying students.
And yet, Ms. McDermott noted that recently in Westchester County, N.Y., 200 high school students and their parents turned out for a Holy Cross information session at a Catholic prep school, far more interest than the college could recall having previously received in the area.
“We’ve had this conversation in past years,” she said, in reference to concerns about a dip in applications and enrollment, “and then it didn’t happen. I guess I’m an eternal optimist.”
Among the high school advisers at the conference, which ends Saturday and is formally known as the National Association for College Admission Counseling, was Frank Tatto of Fairfield Ludlowe High School in Fairfield, Conn.
Mr. Tatto said that a financial-aid information night at the school in December had drawn 350 people, more than triple the number in past years, and that he was particularly struck by the number of students (some of them juniors, who were included for the first time). “I think it’s an added dynamic that the kids are having to contend with that they might not have had to in the past,” he said.
He added that, instead of asking where they might be admitted or what constituted a good fit, “Now, it’s: ‘Will I be able to afford it and what’s my debt going to be?’ ”
John Dunphy, a school counselor at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, N.Y., said he had seen perhaps 20 percent more students this year applying to the State University of New York system, which he called a significant spike. Applications for out-of-state public universities, like Michigan and Delaware, are also on the rise, Mr. Dunphy said.
“Chappaqua is an affluent community, and quite a few of our kids look at selective private schools,” he said, “but the affordability of public schools is definitely being considered more than ever.”
Not that state colleges are necessarily a refuge. As the conferees huddled here Thursday, thousands of students and faculty members were marching in protest 3,000 miles away, at the University of California, Berkeley. Their quarrel was with steep tuition increases and sharp cuts in offerings throughout the state system.
On Friday afternoon, in what is always a high point of the conference, representatives from nearly 550 colleges took their places behind long tables draped with their institution’s banners. In front of them, several thousand counselors moved past like slow-moving barges, some docking occasionally to chat.
Representing the University of California, Davis, was Gregory W. Sneed, associate director of undergraduate admissions, who said he felt the protesters’ pain. From now until June, he will have 18 unpaid furlough days.
“As admissions officers,” Mr. Sneed said, “it does make our jobs tougher.”