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California and the West

Enrollments Keep Rising at Colleges

Education: More students flood public and private state campuses for the third straight year. Baby boomers' children coming of age and healthy economy are cited.


Enrollments are up at California's public colleges for the third straight year, the result of a rebounding economy and the demographic phenomenon dubbed "Tidal Wave II," in which the children of baby boomers are entering the ranks of higher education.

Although the increases appear modest on paper--4.3% in community colleges, 4% at Cal State campuses, and only 1% for the elite University of California--administrators are scrambling to accommodate the influx by building parking lots and shuffling offices to open up classroom space.

Early figures show that in community colleges--the traditional point of entry for immigrants and first-in-the-family college students--more than 60,000 more students have enrolled this fall than last fall.

Even with such rising numbers, however, enrollments are still below the levels of the early 1990s, when a lack of state education dollars and packed classrooms led some students to sue because they couldn't get the courses they needed or graduate within four years. Then fees went up, the economy soured and the number of students plummeted.

But enrollments now continue to increase at each of the three public systems that are designed to offer a higher education to any Californian who wants one. Applications at many private universities are also up, some at record highs.

Although several factors are at work--from a healthy economy to two years of tuition freezes at the public institutions--one reason stands out for its potential long-term ramifications.

"This is the beginning of Tidal Wave II," said CSU Chancellor Barry Munitz, the state's most persistent voice of warning on the topic. "Pick your metaphor: the tip of the iceberg, the first line on the graph. And we're bursting at the seams now on many of our campuses."

At some schools there isn't enough money to hire enough professors to teach enough classes to accommodate all the new students.

At Cal State Northridge, a commuter school that in the past has had difficulty filling campus housing, the fall semester began with 135 students on a waiting list.

Finding a parking place at Cal State Northridge--an often exasperating task since the 1994 Northridge earthquake devastated the campus--is more difficult than ever, returning students say.

At Cal State San Marcos, where this fall's 4,647 students represent a 10% increase over last year, many classrooms are booked from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and many support services offices have been moved off campus.

At Cal State San Diego, officials may take the controversial step of limiting next fall's enrollment by retooling an application process that has remained largely unchanged for more than three decades. Changes could include raising minimum test scores and giving preference to local applicants.

"We're extremely aware of the delicateness of this," said San Diego spokesman Rick Moore. "We're very, very carefully and gingerly experimenting with the process."


Under California's Master Plan for Higher Education, adopted in 1960, the top 12.5% of high school graduates have been eligible for admission to the research-focused UC schools, the top 33.3% for the teaching schools of Cal State. Everyone else is guaranteed a spot in the community college system.

"California has put its entire higher education system in a mode where anybody who wants to can get in," Moore said. "And we're coming to a time where that may no longer be possible."

Although Cal State officials are worried about the higher numbers, there is still room to grow at some of the newer campuses, including the recently built Monterey Bay. And another campus, Cal State Channel Islands, is proposed for Camarillo.

It is the community colleges, some observers say, that face the most difficulty adapting.

In the Los Angeles Community College District, the largest community college district in the country, eight of the district's nine campuses are under orders to eliminate budget deficits, forcing them to cut courses, limit library hours and trim other programs.

Meanwhile, the students keep coming--preliminary figures show that fall enrollments are 9% higher than last year, a remarkable increase under almost any circumstances, officials say. But the growth comes even as the state is enjoying a healthy economy, a condition that historically has caused many community college students to leave the classroom for the workplace.

The University of California is shouldering the least burden. And that will probably continue because it is the most expensive and exclusive of the public systems--and thus accepts the fewest students.

Two UC campuses, Riverside and Santa Cruz, are several thousand students short of capacity--Riverside in large part because the city's reputation as a hot, smoggy place to live has caused students to put it at the bottom of their list of preferred campuses, and Santa Cruz because it has offered an alternative-style education, UC spokesman Terry Colvin said.

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