Slack economy jams campuses

A baby boom 'echo' and scarce job openings have sent college enrollment soaring. Schools are straining to keep up.

The University of Houston seniors sit on a bench outside the student center, eating Trix from a Ziploc bag and watching the crush of humanity. This year, there's even more humanity to see: Here, and across the US, campuses are experiencing record enrollments and spiraling demands on bulging, budget-strapped schools.

"This is the most students we've ever had," says senior Jason Faircloth, adjusting his backpack. "It makes for a lot of school spirit, but it also makes for ... longer waits. And the parking situation – oh, man." Enrollment here is at an all-time high of 34,455 – a 4.6 percent jump. And UH is not alone:

• At some schools, growth is stunning. Kansas State University's enrollment leapt 25 percent this fall; California State University San Marcos saw an 18.8 percent jump.

• For the first time, Washington State colleges accepted more students than the state will help fund. At one point, the University of Washington had 350 in line for beds.

• The pressure is perhaps starkest at community colleges, which are seeing double-digit enrollment rises as students hunt for tuition bargains. Traditionally open to all, some two-year schools are now turning people away.

Part of it, say experts, is the baby-boom "echo," as children of boomers hit college – a demographic blip that will ebb over the next decade. But a rapid immigrant influx and the souring economy have also made enrollment swell.

All this comes at a time when states, facing massive shortfalls, are cutting higher-ed budgets, universities are increasing tuition, and students are seeking more financial aid.

"We expected big increases from [the baby boomlet]. We knew those kids were coming," says Jacqueline King, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at Washington's American Council on Education. But what experts didn't expect was a simultaneous recession, sending people back to school in hopes of staying marketable. And that, amid huge budget cuts, is creating a "double whammy," says Ms. King.

Some states are pushing the community-college option, redistributing the onslaught: Wyoming has launched an advertising campaign for community schools, and Pennsylvania is waiving up to a year's worth of fees for those recently laid off.

And Wisconsin is coping with a bevy of overenrollment problems at its technical colleges: Lakeshore has a 34 percent jump in financial-aid applications; Northcentral's bookstore ran out of books for psychology and computer classes; and Nicolet has beefed up its night school curriculum and rented classroom space off campus.

The University of Houston provides a glimpse into the situation. An urban commuter school, it draws 85 percent of its students from the area, and many work full time and attend school part time.

"When the economy is doing well, bosses tend to ask their employees to work extra hours and [workers] may drop out of school. But when the economy begins to turn, many will come back – and we're seeing that occur," says Ed Apodaca, associate vice president of enrollment at UH.

Add Houston's rapid growth – especially in immigrant communities – and you've got a recipe for bulging classrooms. In fact, says King, many colleges with record enrollment are in areas of massive immigrant influx – such as the South, Southwest, and West.

Though many schools relish rising numbers, swelling populations often leave them reeling. "If you're not careful and let enrollment outpace services, you aren't teaching. You're controlling crowds," says Mr. Apodaca. To that end, UH opened more housing and is adding a new rec center, science center, heath-services center, and more parking.

Universities nationwide are getting creative as students throng. Storage closets have been converted to faculty offices at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento. And Pennsylvania's Slippery Rock University recently completed a new physical therapy building and more classrooms, and beefed up distance-education courses.

High-tech options such as distance learning – though not necessarily cost-effective – also help serve the masses, says David Leveille, deputy director of the California Postsecondary Education Commission in Sacramento.

The influx affects every aspect of campus life: Dorm space is crowded, lecture halls are jammed, classes are offered on weekends, and vending machines are swiftly stripped bare. And the crush will continue: Between 1999 and 2011, postsecondary enrollment will increase 15 percent, according to Education Department statistics.

Despite the turmoil, most schools welcome the surge; many are urging more high school students to attend. That's becoming an easier sell, say experts – especially after the 1990s, when colleges struggled to fill classrooms. "I think the get-rich-quick outlook that we have had in recent years, people are seeing its downside, and recognizing that the work force of both today and tomorrow needs to have a solid foundation in education," says Mr. Leveille.

Indeed, as the economy has moved away from manufacturing and into the service sector in recent decades, education has become more highly prized. "As the economy has shifted, there has been an increasing need for jobs that require more education," says William Doyle, senior policy analyst at the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in San Jose, Calif.

Some popular professors, of course, have long been used to multitudes. One example here is Steven Mintz, who often has 500 students crowd his history classes. This year, he's trying new steps to make the situation work – adding study groups, providing more online resources, and allowing some students to switch to smaller classes.

"I view it as an opportunity to reach more students and teach them the importance of history," says Professor Mintz, fumbling with a slide projector. "I prefer to have this lecture hall filled."

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