The admissions team at Reed College, known for its free-spirited students, learned in March that the prospective freshman class it had so carefully composed after weeks of reviewing essays, scores and recommendations was unworkable.
Money was the problem. Too many of the students needed financial aid, and the college did not have enough. So the director of financial aid gave the team another task: drop more than 100 needy students before sending out acceptances, and substitute those who could pay full freight.
The whole idea of excluding a student simply because of money clashed with the college’s ideals, Leslie Limper, the aid director, acknowledged. “None of us are very happy,” she said, adding that Reed did not strike anyone from its list last year and that never before had it needed to weed out so many worthy students. “Sometimes I wonder why I’m still doing this.”
That decision was one of several agonizing ones for this small private college, celebrated for its combination of academic rigor and a laid-back approach to education that once attracted Steven P. Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, to study on its leafy campus minutes from downtown.
With their endowments ravaged by the financial markets and more students clamoring for assistance, private colleges like Reed are making numerous changes this year in staff, students, tuition and classes that they hope will tide them over without harming their reputations or their educational goals.
Reed and others have admitted more students to bolster revenue with larger classes. Many are cutting costs by freezing or reducing salaries, suspending hiring and postponing building maintenance and construction. And the cost of attendance is rising; in Reed’s case, by 3.8 percent, to nearly $50,000 a year for its 1,300 students.
But Reed has put off drastic measures like spending more of its endowment, closing some departments or selling some real estate near campus. Instead, college officials are counting on the economy to turn around quickly, as became apparent when they allowed a New York Times reporter to sit in on budget discussions this spring.
“Like everybody, we are trying to start by trying to cut the stuff that is least likely to inflict real pain on the program,” said Colin Diver, Reed’s president. When he talks about Reed’s short-term response to the recession, Mr. Diver concedes he is torn, wondering whether a broader reassessment would be in order.
Perhaps it would be a good thing, he said, if the recession could refocus college administrators on the quality of higher education, rather than on investments in climbing walls (Reed does not have one) and other “country club” aspects of college life that have fueled an academic arms race reliant on tuition increases and fund-raising.
“The catering to consumer tastes — I keep trying to say, we are in the education business,” Mr. Diver said, describing the pressure to keep up with wealthier colleges and expressing a frustration rarely voiced publicly by college presidents. “The whole principle behind higher education is, we know something that you don’t. Therefore, we shouldn’t cater to them.”
But no college president wants to be first to make major changes in the college experience; Reed, for example, is not abandoning plans for a new performing arts center. “If we’re going to change our ways, we’re really going to need to be pushed,” Mr. Diver said, referring to colleges generally. “It’s not going to well up from within.”