Despite the long list of depressing statistics about job losses and market failures, the early numbers from the Undergraduate Office of Admission at the University of Richmond signal a surprising success.
"Our Early Decision numbers were up," said Pamela Spence, dean of admission.
Against predictions, applications for the early decision option in November increased by 8 percent with 299 applications, up from 283 last fall.
The number of applications received for the early decision option in January matched the number from last year with 92 applications. The second early decision option in January allows an applicant who committed to another school in the fall, but was not accepted, to make the same financially obligatory commitment to Richmond in January.
The increase is surprising because many expected the number of applications for early decision options to fall at colleges and universities across the country in the wake of a weakening national and international economy.
The early decision option allows applicants to express their preference for a certain school, which is thought to better the odds for acceptance. But at many institutions, including Richmond, the decision is binding, meaning that an early decision applicant is financially obligated to attend if accepted.
With job security vanishing and industries begging for bailouts, speculation grew that applicants and their families would be hesitant to make that kind of financial commitment.
Extrapolate that logic and Richmond could have seen a steeper decline than other schools after years of attention for its growing price tag.
While the admissions computer system is still downloading regular decision applications, the overall number of applicants for 2008 is expected to be close to last year's record-breaking 7,970 first-year applicants.
"We're really happy about it and I think it indicates our appeal as a national liberal arts and sciences institution that, at the same time, has one of the top 20 schools of business and the first school of leadership in the country," Spence said.
The success could also largely be attributed to the integrated efforts of the admission and financial aid offices to deliver a message of "access and affordability," according to Nanci Tessier, vice president for enrollment management. Her position was created at the end of last year in part to help incorporate financial aid offers into the admission office's recruiting efforts.
"We've been working really hard to get our message out," Tessier said. "Richmond is really committed to making our education accessible and affordable."
The new language of "access and affordability" is based on policies from both offices. The "access" element refers to the need-blind admissions policy, meaning that an applicant's financial profile is unknown to those reviewing applications. The "affordability" element refers to the financial aid policy to meet 100 percent of demonstrated need. Richmond is among 1 percent of colleges that has implemented these policies in tandem.
Tessier's position has helped to more effectively market these coupled policies. A newsletter was sent out to college and guidance counselors in a large network of high schools across the country. The letter highlighted these policies with an aim to appeal to more low-income and first-generation applicants.
In addition, representatives from both admission and financial aid held workshops in northern Virginia and on campus to help applicants and their parents navigate the many options at Richmond and other institutions. Through the school's Web site, prospective parents can ask questions directly via online chats. The efforts to "get the message out," as Tessier said, have even been extended to social networking sites.
"We want families to know our financial-aid packages are so generous that we want students to still feel comfortable applying early," said Cindy Deffenbaugh, director of Financial Aid.
Not only were these efforts designed to respond to economic ripple effects, but they also foreshadow the new direction outlined in the developing Strategic Plan, also called the "Richmond Promise." The language of "access and affordability" is central to the plan's goals for a more diverse student body. While the office of Enrollment Management is not explicitly included in the plan, it was created to help coordinate these same efforts.
"The Enrollment Management position has afforded us a voice at the highest level," Spence said. "It has further allowed us to integrate our two offices to serve the university more efficiently and effectively."
The success of this year's admissions process marks only the beginning for change in how Richmond and other institutions across the nation will recruit prospective students. Though increasing diversity is a definite priority, one of the lessons to be learned is that interest in financial packages is climbing the socio-economic ladder.
"I think [the creation of Enrollment Management] acknowledges a modern reality that part of how a person chooses a college is the money," said Sabena Moretz-Van Namen, associate director of admission.
Contact reporter Amelie LeBreton at firstname.lastname@example.org