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Economy, uncertainty dull college commitments

| Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009

Lavelle Jackson probably will not decide where he will go to college until shortly before he graduates from North Side Urban Pathways in June.

"There are too many opportunities out there," said Jackson, 17, of Stanton Heights. "I want to pick the right one for me."

Many high school seniors are doing the same, according to admissions officials at local colleges. And that leaves schools wondering how big their classes will be and whether they will need to trim their budgets.

"Families are not committing to colleges as early as they did in the past," said Michael Poll, vice president for enrollment at Chatham University in Shadyside. "Families are waiting to receive their financial aid awards and secure financing before they commit to a university."

Applications and offers of admission are up at Slippery Rock University, but payments of the $90 enrollment deposit are slightly down, said W.C. Vance, director of undergraduate admissions.

"There seems to be less of a sense of urgency this year than last year," he said. "My hunch is there's less cash on hand this year, but that's just speculation."

Sherri Bett, director of admissions at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, also blames students' reluctance to commit on the sluggish economy.

"Because of that," she said, "they are holding on to their deposit money longer and not depositing to as many institutions as they have in years past."

La Roche College in McCandless is getting fewer $500 deposits from students.

"Most families don't have money to send a deposit to us and another school," said David McFarland, the school's director of admissions.

Jackson has applied to Millersville and Mansfield universities and has been accepted at Community College of Allegheny County. He and his twin brother would be the first in their family to attend college, and they would like to go to the same school.

"We want to help my Mom out so she won't have to pay a lot of money," he said. "We're trying to see which one is good and affordable."

Jamayah Sharif, 18, a senior at Penn Hills High School, has applied to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Hampton University in Virginia and Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

"I'll probably wait to hear from as many as I can before it's too late," she said. "I just want to make sure I'm making the right decision."

Students' reluctance to commit is not unusual when the economy is bad, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers in Washington, D.C.

"People try to hedge their bets," he said. "The more uncertainty there is in the system, the more human nature tends to cover as many bases as possible."

As students drag their feet, admissions officials are feeling the pressure.

"We're being asked what the class looks like, and we're saying to ourselves we're not sure, which is a scary thought," said Chatham's Poll. "We're all a little bit nervous."

If Slippery Rock does not get more commitments in the next five to eight weeks, it would have to offer admission to more students, Vance said.

Bett said Seton Hill has developed "contingency plans" if it fails to meet its enrollment target, but declined to specify what those plans are.

Students' uncertainty is taking a toll on admissions staffs.

"From my office's standpoint, we have to work a lot harder to stay in contact with students," McFarland said. "A small school like La Roche that is tuition-driven. We can't afford not to bring in the students we need."

Other schools such as the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Robert Morris University have seen no change in student deposits.

"This spring will tell a little bit more for most schools," said Kellie Laurenzi, dean of admissions at Robert Morris.

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