Private colleges, universities battle reputation as schools for the rich

Havens for the wealthy.

That's what private colleges and universities are becoming, some educators warn. Cutbacks - or at least the public's perception of cutbacks - in federal student aid are ''scaring students off,'' says Julianne Thrift of the National Institute of Independent Colleges and Universities.

The colleges are wasting no time in responding, according to William McNamara of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Private university task forces are figuring out ways to attract students of all incomes. Creative loan options are being developed and adopted. And education lobbyists in Washington helped persuade Congress to restore many of student aid cutbacks proposed by the Reagan administration.

''Fewer low-income and minority students are able to choose the independent colleges,'' Ms. Thrift says. ''This kind of trend has an unhappy conclusion if it continues, after years of drives by private colleges to broaden the kinds of students they attract. Policymakers are going to have to decide whether it's important to have diversity in higher education.''

Fall enrollment figures are just starting to trickle in, but a study of private schools by the institute shows a 39 percent drop over two years in the number of students from families earning between $6,000 and $24,000 a year and who applied for financial aid.

''People want to attend the college of their choice, but at the last minute they're not able to,'' says Ms. Thrift. ''They're not just thinking of how to make it through this year, but through all four years. People used to go into big debt - they're much more cautious now.''

At Harvard University, only 58 percent of the black students accepted for admittance this fall are attending, according to L. Fred Jewett, dean of admissions. Last fall, 69 percent of the blacks accepted actually came.

''There is an increase in numbers of students who choose not to come because costs are more than they can handle,'' says Mr. Jewett. ''But our concern is mostly with those who didn't apply at all,'' he says, meaning mostly lower-income students.

Private colleges will become a class distinction ''to the degree that families perceive private colleges as out of their financial range,'' says Jewett. But he admits some colleges that have relied heavily on federal aid are aiming their recruitment efforts at wealthier students who can foot their own tuition bill.

It's the combination of actual aid cutbacks, wide publicity about proposed cuts, and the uncertainty over government funding which has led many students to back off from the traditionally more expensive private colleges and turn to a less-expensive public university or a community college, says Mr. McNamara.

McNamara says total enrollment at private colleges could decline another 5 percent beyond the 2.7 percent it dropped last year.

Studies are under way to find out where the would-be students are going. Besides turning to public and community colleges, many have signed up with the military this summer.

''If school becomes uncertain, there's nothing much more certain than the military,'' Ms. Thrift says.

According to the Pentagon, more than 82 percent of this year's military recruits had high-school diplomas, compared with last year's 76 percent.

A strong incentive to sign up for a two-year hitch in the Army is Uncle Sam's promise to pick up 75 percent of the college tab afterwards. The Army will pay all but $2,400 of a maximum $15,200 for a college education, and the $2,400 comes out of the soldier's payroll deductions.

Early returns from community colleges across the country show enrollment exceeding the expected 4 percent average increase, says Dale Parnell, president of the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges.

''We're bulging at the seams with students,'' he says. And in states such as California and Washington where budgets are being slashed, attendance at community colleges is first come, first served.

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities expects reports this week on whether enrollment is up or down, says vice-president John Mallan. ''But early reports are that universities with engineering and technological schools might be up and the liberal arts might be down.''

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