Slump squeezes private colleges in North Carolina

Public universities will soon face the state budget knife, but private colleges already feel a sharp sense of urgency about their financial future.

They need to cut spending but can't let frugality reduce their appeal to tuition-paying students.

"For small colleges, the most important financial variable is related to enrollment; they are very tuition-dependent," said Tony Pals, a spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "So if a small, private college has a drop in enrollment of just a few percentage points, it can be a very serious problem."

xhibit A is Meredith College in Raleigh, a liberal arts women's college that aimed to enroll 450 students last fall but came up 50 short. With tuition, room and board costing more than $30,000 this year, the revenue loss exceeded $1.5 million.

For high school seniors choosing between Meredith and public universities such as N.C. State, UNC-Chapel Hill, East Carolina or a local community college, that big tuition tab looms large, said Bill Wade, Meredith's vice president for business and finance.

"We're more expensive than the public institutions, and North Carolina has some very good and really inexpensive public institutions," Wade said. "[Students] are choosing to go to a very good and much less expensive place."

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