One Way to Handle More Students: Build

Some states meet rising demand for college by building new campuses.

Summer is usually a time when college campuses around the country enjoy a few, short months of peace and quiet before the hordes of clueless freshmen and jaded seniors return for the fall semester.

But not this summer.

From California to Florida to Virginia, the summer stillness has been replaced by the crack of hammers on wood. Some states - mostly in the burgeoning Sun Belt - are putting millions of dollars into their colleges and universities to meet the exploding demand for higher education.

California, for example, is grappling with estimates that 100,000 more students each year will attend its schools between now and 2005. Construction crews are currently rushing to finish a new University of California campus near Fresno, as well as three new campuses for the Cal State system, and a host of community colleges.

The building binge will help ease the strain to colleges' creaking facilities, but perhaps more important, it shows an emerging trend on quads and colonnades around the country: a greater focus on the bottom line.

* New campuses will offer students more options when choosing colleges, and the increasing number of choices could drive down the escalating costs of tuition.

* The need to stay competitive in an expanding market is forcing many college administrators to look at their budgets line by line. Following the lead of the corporate sector, college officials are focusing their resources and canceling less-popular courses, privatizing cafeteria services, and eliminating layers of bureaucracy.

But will the streamlining and the expansions be enough to keep college affordable for the majority of Americans? A recent study warns of the drastic nature of the changes needed: If tuitions continue to rise at the current rate, half of the students who qualify for college in 2015 won't be able to afford it.

"We are already pricing thousands and thousands of students out of a college education," says Thomas Kean, president of Drew University in Madison, N.J., and co-chair of the private Commission on National Investment in Higher Education, which conducted the study. "Public and private universities have got to show restraint in meaningful ways."

THE study, "Breaking the Social Contract: The Fiscal Crisis in Higher Education," makes several recommendations to make college more affordable: Federal and state governments should invest more public funds in higher education. Public and private colleges should focus on their points of comparative advantage rather than striving to become full-service campuses. And colleges should share resources, such as libraries, classes, and services, to improve productivity and disperse costs.

In California, college officials are showing restraint by renovating an abandoned Army base near Monterey and a former mental hospital north of Sacramento for two of their new Cal State colleges. All of the new Cal State campuses will be designed to reach more students over the Internet at their homes and workplaces.

"There won't be a lot of sororities and fraternities," laughs Mr. Munitz, the Cal State chancellor.

Like California, Florida is building new campuses to meet the expected 50 percent increases in high school graduates over the next 10 years. The new Florida State University campus at Fort Myers will be smaller than other campuses, and like the Cal State schools, it will take advantage of the Internet to disperse courses.

In Virginia, after years of tuition increase made public higher education costs among the most expensive in the nation, the state legislature has authorized two new campuses of George Mason University to be built in 1998 and 1999, along with a host of community colleges throughout the northern part of the state.

Private colleges have been expanding as well, not only in traditional brick-and-mortar construction, but also through the Internet. The University of Phoenix - the largest provider of MBA degrees in the country - and International University in Denver, both offer all their courses and materials over the Internet.

The Internet offers the best way to give students "the courses that students want, at a time that's convenient, at a price they can afford," says Clifford Adelman, senior research analyst at the US Department of Education in Washington. With a growing number of students forced to attend three or four colleges at once to fit their schedule and goals, the Internet could make life easier, at least for those students who have their own computer.

Eventually, the Internet could also provide an easy answer for how to reach the coming "tidal wave" of college students.

"Courses and content delivered to your desktop solves your space problems," says James Mengle, of the State Higher Education Executive Officers in Denver.

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