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Texas college enrollments on the rise
Crammed in College

It's good to be popular. For Texas colleges, however, finding room for all the students who want to attend is a challenge.

More than 1.1 million students enrolled at Texas' 142 public and independent higher education institutions in fall 2003, and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) predicts that number could exceed 1.5 million by 2015. Texas colleges and universities face the task of finding places to put all of those students.

"There are already pressure points where enrollments are so great that it's tough to meet demands of the students," said Don Brown, a former THECB Commissioner now with the College For All Texans Foundation.

Texas' four-year universities, including flagship schools the University of Texas at Austin (UT) and Texas A&M University, are among the most recognizable universities nationwide and both have about 50,000 students. But many of Texas' smaller institutions also are providing higher education opportunities for more and more Texans.

Bigger is better?
UT topped 51,000 students in fall 2003, which was down about 800 students from the 2002 total. Enrollment dropped again in fall 2004 by about 1,000 students to 50,377. UT has enrolled more than 47,000 students annually for more than a decade, and administrators welcome even small declines, according to Gwen Grigsby, associate vice president for governmental relations at UT-Austin.

"We just had several huge years [of freshmen enrollment]," she said. "We had a bubble a few years ago of about 8,000 students in a freshman class. About 6,500 now has been a steady number for the last few years."

Larger class sizes meant the university had its work cut out to keep up, Grigsby said.

"That's been one of our huge issues is trying to keep up with class sizes," she said. "We've just had lots of kids in general for a few years."

More students are sticking around the Austin campus to finish their education, which adds to the overall enrollment, Grigsby said. Since 2000, 93 percent of freshmen have returned to campus after their first year, according to Grigsby.

In College Station, Texas A&M University hit almost 45,000 students for fall 2004.

"We're at 45,000, and we can't get any bigger," said Bill Perry, vice provost at Texas A&M. "[THECB] predicts enrollment, and both the board and [Texas A&M] agree, 45,000 is going to be our enrollment."

Texas A&M's enrollment exploded in the 1990s but not to the point where accommodating students is a big problem, Perry said. Instead, he said, keeping up with enough faculty is a concern.

"We don't feel like we're overcrowded, but our rapid growth in the '70s, '80s and '90s kind of outpaced our faculty growth," he said. "We're planning, continually working with deans and department heads to keep up with their faculty plans and needs."

Texas A&M is dealing with faculty and staff space problems by leasing off-campus office space and renovating other on-campus buildings into new roles.

"We've converted a couple of dorms into office space, so we've looked at ways of renovating existing structures before building," Perry said.

Texas A&M's student-to-faculty ratio was 22-to-1 in fall 2001 but the university cut it to 20-to-1 by fall 2004. The goal is an 18-to-1 ratio within three years, Perry said.

Adding faculty is an ongoing project at Texas Tech University as well, in addition to constructing new buildings on-campus. The university built a new English and philosophy building in 2003 to keep pace with the school's burgeoning enrollment, which grew more than 17 percent from 1994 to 2004 and topped 28,000 in fall 2004.

Enrollment in 2004 was only about 1 percent higher than in 2003, which was a good thing, said Stephanie Anderson, associate vice president for enrollment management.

"We're very fortunate in that we have room to grow," she said. "But we needed a slower year to try and catch up."

As student enrollment has risen at Tech, so has the academic performance. The average SAT score for incoming freshmen between 1994 and 2004 rose from 953 to 1125, Anderson said.

Tech's rising enrollment can be partly attributed to the large student populations at UT-Austin and Texas A&M, she said.

"I think their enrollment cap has facilitated students looking at other options, and we're one of the better ones out there," Anderson said.

Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes says several factors may be in play.

"College enrollment is growing for several reasons, including an increase in the number of high school graduates, outreach efforts across the state to encourage people to pursue college, and a growing recognition among Texans that the best jobs need more education," said Paredes.

Close-knit communities
Texas' two-year community colleges--50 of them, totaling more than 70 campuses--also feel the squeeze. Community colleges are the fastest-growing segment of the state's higher education sector, adding more than 20,000 students from fall 2002 to 2003 to stand at more than 536,000 students, according to THECB.

McLennan Community College (MCC) in Waco started the fall 2004 semester with 8,500 students. That's 1,000 more than in 2003 and 3,000 more than in 2000, and the school doesn't expect a slowdown, said MCC President Dennis Michaelis.

"We've done a study and projected enrollments out over the next 10 to 15 years," he said. "If we grow just 3 percent, we're going to be 11,000 to 12,000 by 2015, and that's with real minimal growth."

To deal with the expected growth, MCC is seeking voter approval on a $73.4 million bond package to build three new facilities and renovate four others. But it's not just for students of the future, according to Michaelis.

"We have 1,750 students in science classes right now," Michaelis said. "But we have demand for 3,500 science students."

A 120,000-square-foot science building is part of the proposed bond package.

While MCC's enrollment booms, things are a little quieter at Howard College in Big Spring. But the need for improvement in student services remains, said Amy Burchett, vice president for instruction and student services at Howard.

"I think due to our rural setting, we're in such a different game than Dallas or Austin...yet we have to provide that same level of service," she said. "It's a challenge, and we wear many hats."

Howard--with four campuses throughout West Texas--had spring 2005 enrollment of 2,701, down 1.8 percent from spring 2004. The drop is noticeable but not to the point of being alarming, Burchett said.

"We're doing an in-depth analysis on what segments of our enrollment are dropping," she said. "We're not booming, but may be maintaining. Again, we're different in our rural setting, and we're steady."

The largest high school systems close to Howard--Big Spring and San Angelo--are both dropping in their high school enrollment numbers, according to Burchett. But like many other campuses, Howard is expanding to meet students' needs. A new, 25,000-square-foot performing arts center is under construction and more work needs to be done.

"Howard's been around since 1945," Burchett said. "Many of our buildings are just old, and while we'd love to have brand new ones, some just need to be renovated or refurbished."

Clint Shields