Florida Private Colleges Experiencing a Shrinking Applicant Pool

Private institutions don’t necessarily mean a higher price tag anymore. In a state where public institutions are affordable, and concerns are growing over the amount of student debt that students are accumulating, Florida’s private colleges, such as Rollins, try to play the admissions game to their strengths. They promise a well-rounded liberal arts education with lots of personal touches and not a lot of crowded lecture halls.

Over the past five years, low enrollment and money woes have led to over a dozen small colleges, mostly across the Northeast, to close. There’s something called a “birth dearth,” which started when people had fewer babies around the time of the Great Recession. It was anticipated that it would lead to fewer students graduating high school and leaving colleges intensifying the smaller pool of candidates competition.

There are a lot of Central Florida’s nonprofit private colleges that appear to be doing just fine, at least according to their financial statements and enrollment figures. However, they are trying new strategies to entice students to apply, such as traveling further to recruit applicants and forging agreements with local state colleges.

“It’s a very difficult, competitive landscape for private colleges in Florida because we have a very excellent public university system,” said the vice president of enrollment for Stetson University in DeLand, Joel Bauman. “Good students can attend these universities almost for free.”

For students living in the NorthEast, those that experience those bleak winters, Florida is still an enticing destination, college admissions staffers say. But the once-steady stream of applicants from Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states is slowing. That’s causing many schools to recruit west.

“We’ve even started to do recruitment in Hawaii,” said director of admissions for Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Jacob Browne.

About 80% of first-year students came from outside Florida in 2017, which is up from 72% percent a decade ago. The marine science program in the college has helped attract students from far-away places, Browne stated. Colorado, which possesses the nation’s highest percentage of people with dive certifications, has provided a deep pool of applicants for Eckerd, which is home to a popular scuba club. The school enrolled 19 first-year students from Colorado.

But that strategy may not be sustainable.

It is projected by the National Center of Education Statistics, that the number of public high school graduates drop-outs starting in 2025, will decline a little more than 3% by 2027. That’s according to a report that was released last year. The decline is expected to be more pronounced in regions like the Northeast and less so in Southern states including Florida.

“There’s something fundamentally different that’s going to be happening here,” said associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, Tom Green. “You’re not going to be able to have the strategy of going to neighboring states. Not everybody can go dip in somebody else’s pool because all of the pools are shrinking.”

Several massive public flagship schools will pass that test just fine, Green believes. Smaller schools have the possibility of staying afloat by wooing the non-traditional students, the 45 million adults in the U.S. who have no degree but have earned some credits. But by better retaining students, it is less expensive than recruiting new students.

Many small colleges are still counting on tapping into other states, including Florida Southern College in Lakeland for students. They send recruiters to more than 20 states, and they talk with the students as early as ninth grade about where they are thinking about going to college. Enrollment is growing at the school, with about 40 percent of students coming from outside of Florida.

Tuition and fees for in-state students at the public institutions are among the lowest in the nation. Private schools typically post a higher “sticker price” than the student institutions do. It’s like the tables have turned. 

Many colleges offer generous scholarships. At Stetson, nearly every student receives some scholarship from the school (the average award goes for more than $26,000 per year). But that amount is nothing in comparison to the total estimated cost for students living on campus, a whopping $60,000 annually.

Academics can be fun too. At the school, there are classes such as “Science of Superheroes” and an English one that revolves around Game of Thrones being offered. There’s also a popular scuba-diving class that students can take in the Cayman Islands to get certified.