Colleges Ask: Can Enrollment Be Too High?

Across the United States, colleges and universities are facing a perplexing problem: More of the prospective students they admit each year are actually showing up.

After a decade of vigorous marketing to boost sagging enrollments, many colleges and universities now report being inundated by applications from college-age students of the baby-boom "echo" generation, or "baby boomerang," as some call it. That surge may last a decade.

While the "echo" is a great opportunity to tighten admissions standards and cut back on remedial help, in the short run it has put a premium on housing and class space. Budgets are stretched. Schools are scrambling for professors.

At the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 7,000 applied for admission as freshmen this fall, up from 6,300 two years ago. Ordinarily that big a jump could be managed. The school, which considers itself selective, typically admits only 65 to 70 percent of applicants - then expects a smaller number (the "yield") to actually attend.

But for two years now, the university's yield has soared along with applications. The result: Last year's freshman class was 14 percent larger than expected. The school toughened admissions requirements. Yet nearly 2,200 freshmen showed up this year - 11.5 percent more than expected.

Some school officials are giddy with excitement over the influx. Others are shocked.

"You work like crazy to get the ones you've admitted to come and accept your offer - and then you're surprised when they do," says Craig Fulton, director of admissions at UNC-Charlotte.

But UNC has company in its embarrassment of riches.

Indiana University in Bloomington expects soon to report the largest freshman class in its 178-year history. Some students are housed temporarily in dorm lounges. At Oregon State University in Corvallis, freshman enrollment is up 13 percent, with overall enrollment up 5 percent. At Muhlenberg College, a liberal-arts school in Allentown, Pa., more than 3,000 applied this year - a record. The same is happening at many other small colleges.

"Young people finally do understand that for 60 to 70 percent of jobs, a high school degree just doesn't cut it anymore," says Amy Cook, an analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Boulder, Colo. "Universities have done a great job marketing. They have persuaded a generation that a college education means making more money and a better job."

Last week, the US Department of Education forecast 15 percent annual growth in full-time college enrollment and 3 percent growth in part-time enrollment between 1998 and 2008. Much of that growth is concentrated in specific regions, particularly the West.

It's also no accident that the record-breaking tidal wave of applications and yields is most dramatic at big public universities.

Private schools are "capping out" on financial aid as they reach a limit on how far they can go, Ms. Cook says. But instead of taking out even bigger college loans, students are recognizing that state colleges and universities provide "a good bang for their buck."

Many students are also discovering that credits will transfer from community colleges after two years - giving them name plate education for about half the cost. In that vein, Arizona State University officials in Tempe say they are planning for a "huge increase," from 49,000 students to about 75,000 25 years from now, geared not only to expected increases in traditional college-age students, but also to many nontraditional students returning to school. In fact, ASU's freshman enrollment was down slightly from last year's record, while overall enrollment hit a new high because of the number of students transferring.

Some are unimpressed by big numbers and say that instead of fattening enrollments, colleges should seize the opportunity to retool academically and financially.

That might begin to repair damage caused by the scramble to raise enrollment, which many blame for the jump in remedial courses and underprepared students, says Jeffrey Wallin, president of the American Academy for Liberal Education, a college accrediting agency in Washington. He suggests raising admissions standards, cutting back remedial courses, and less emphasis on student evaluations of professors to curb grade inflation.

"This is a window of opportunity to strengthen academic offerings," he says. "One hopes with enrollment pressure taken off that they can afford to address these problems and strengthen their core-curriculum offerings."

Early signs suggest some administrators have similar ideas.

At the University of Dayton in Ohio, 1,837 freshmen - the largest incoming class in 29 years - have just arrived on campus. Officials squeezed all freshmen into on-campus housing - but will soon raise admissions standards.

"Our goal is to cut back to not more than 1,700 students," says Chris Munoz, associate provost for management. "We want to be sure we manage our size so we continue to provide a high-quality university experience."

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