Under Financial Stress, More Colleges Cap Enrollments

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Orville Myers / Monterey County Herald / AP

Bria Reiniger, left, and Taylor Zompolis help each other move in to a dormitory at California State University Monterey Bay in Marina, Calif.

California State University has long prided itself on being open to all qualified students, but that's about to change.

As record numbers of applications collide head-on with deep budget cuts, on Nov. 20 the nation's largest university system announced plans to decrease its student body by at least 10,000 students and to cap enrollment at all 23 of its campuses. Says Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education, a lobbying firm that represents 1,800 colleges and universities: "What you're seeing in California is a double witching hour." Cal State, which experienced a 20% increase in first-year applications this fall, is the first public university to cap enrollment since the market meltdown in September, a move other schools may follow as 21 states grapple with midyear budget cuts to public colleges and universities in the wake of financial Armageddon. (See pictures of the college dorm's evolution.)

With 77% of CSU's operating budget coming from the state, shrinking tax revenue had already left the school in a $200 million ditch at the start of this academic year. Things got worse on Nov. 6 when California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced an additional $66 million cut. Now university officials say they simply don't have enough resources to serve all the students who want in. "It's not fair to students to admit them to a university and not be able to offer classes, sections and student services that they need and academic advising and help that students deserve," says CSU chancellor Charles Reed. Cal State tried to cope with the economic downturn in the early 1990s by increasing overall class size, but many students could not enroll in the courses they needed and ultimately dropped out. The school is trying to avoid a repeat of those mistakes.

Until now, only six of CSU's campuses had competitive admissions standards over and above the systemwide requirements of a 3.0 high school GPA or high enough scores on the SAT or ACT to compensate for lower grades. Under the new rules, all campuses will still have to admit all eligible freshmen in their immediate vicinity, but many of the schools will up the academic bar for students from farther away. Rejecting paying students might seem counterintuitive in a time of need, but tuition accounts for just 23% of Cal State's funding (even after a 10% hike last year). That's on par with Harvard, where tuition accounts for about 20% of the school's revenue — but there, a multibillion-dollar endowment makes up the difference. On average, tuition covers about half of total educational costs at public universities. (Read about colleges getting hit by the credit crunch.)

With CSU set to stop accepting applications at several campuses on Nov. 30, administrators expect that many students will turn to community colleges with the goal of transferring to Cal State two years down the line. According to a survey released by the American Association of Community Colleges in July, 66% of statewide community-college directors expect that enrollment caps at the state level will boost demand at their institutions. The problem, however, is that community-college directors in 16 states already report that they can't meet the demand from high school grads as is. That means if they get an influx of applicants who would normally have gone to four-year state schools, some students may have to delay their college plans or get pushed out of the system altogether.

Administrators fear that students of color will take the hardest hit. Many of these students tend to live in underserved communities, have limited knowledge about how and when to apply for financial aid, and tmake up their minds about college later in the school year. "Those are the students that America needs to reach out to, because they are going to be the workforce of the 21st century," says Reed. "And they will probably be the group that will be the most at risk" of getting squeezed out by an enrollment cap. (See TIME's special report on paying for college.)

Still, for students already enrolled at Cal State — or for those lucky enough to gain admission under the tougher standards — the crackdown could ensure the quality of their education. The cap should prevent classes from getting so big that there's not enough, say, lab equipment or academic advising. It will also increase the likelihood that students will be able to get a spot in each of the classes they need to take in order to graduate, thereby saving many students from a costly fifth (or sixth) year.

How long CSU's enrollment cap lasts — and whether more universities adopt them — will depend on how quickly the economy recovers. In the meantime, public universities face tough choices. When state schools get hit with major budget shortfalls, "the only question is how the losses are distributed," says Hartle. "Nobody wins."

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