|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Monday, June 28, 2004
Chronicle of Higher Education 7-2-04
No Room in the Class
But now acceptance at George Mason is no longer a given -- even for those with solid B averages in high school. Space in the university's classes is at a premium, as it is at public colleges across much of the South and the West -- particularly in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Nevada -- where the number of students moving through the pipeline to college is rapidly rising.
Politicians and families may be worried that increasing tuition will keep students out of college, but demographic trends pose an even more fundamental threat to access. Demand for slots at public institutions is growing, with the children of baby boomers and increasing numbers of immigrants arriving on college campuses in droves.
The total number of students graduating from the nation's high schools is projected to peak at almost 3.2 million in 2009, a 10.4-percent increase over 2002, the latest year for which actual figures were available, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. After that, the high-school population is expected to plateau. But even then, the crunch is not likely to ease because state and college leaders are pressing to increase the college-going rate, given the growing importance of a degree for getting a good job and of an educated populace for fueling state economies.
The growth in applications and enrollments is especially daunting when it is combined with shrinking state support for public higher education. The long-term outlook for state aid to colleges is poor, even if tax revenues begin to improve.
As a result, politicians who have generally avoided taking aggressive action on space problems at their public colleges may soon be forced to act as they hear from middle-class voters whose children face dwindling college opportunities and from community-college students who find it harder and harder to get the courses they need.
"This is going to be the issue of the decade," says Robert G. Templin Jr., president of Northern Virginia Community College. The number of students there has grown by 10 percent, to 64,000, over the last four years, at the same time the college's state aid dropped from $2,600 per full-time student to $2,000.
"It's going to boil down to an issue of who gets to go to college," Mr. Templin says. "There's not enough room for everybody to go."
Caught in the Crunch
In Virginia, the number of high-school graduates is expected to grow by 16 percent, to more than 83,000, by 2009. The resulting bumper crop of college applicants has made Virginia's most-prestigious institutions -- the College of William and Mary, James Madison University, the University of Virginia, and Virginia Tech -- almost off limits to all but the brightest students at many high schools in the state. As fewer top students are admitted there, more head to middle-tier institutions, which, in turn, squeezes out students who used to attend those universities and leads to even more rapid growth at Virginia's community colleges.
That leaves the middle-tier institutions like George Mason, Christopher Newport University, and Virginia Commonwealth University caught in between. In addition to seeing more applicants from bright high-school students who can no longer get into places like the University of Virginia, George Mason is also receiving more applications from students at other Virginia colleges seeking to transfer.
Enrolling more students with strong academic backgrounds also means that fewer of them drop out during their first year. And fewer are transferring elsewhere as George Mason becomes more prestigious and as less space is available for them at other Virginia universities.
While improving retention rates has been a goal of George Mason officials and state leaders, achieving it has been somewhat bittersweet. "We're like a dog chasing a car," says Alan G. Merten, George Mason's president. "We caught the car."
Mr. Merten says the university has room to grow but is limited in its ability to do so because of state budget cuts. George Mason is slated to receive a 5-percent, or $5-million, increase in state appropriations for 2004-5. But the amount of aid the university receives per in-state, full-time-equivalent student has fallen by more than 26 percent since the beginning of the decade, to $5,289 in the 2004-5 budget year. University officials estimate that it costs about $10,700 to educate each full-time student.
George Mason has sought to strike a bargain with the state, submitting proposals last year to accommodate more of Virginia's college students in exchange for more state funds to serve them. University officials say they were willing to work with state officials on how much they would receive per additional student, perhaps as little as $4,000. The university offered two options: a slow-growth plan that called for an annual increase of about 250 full-time students and a fast-growth plan in which the university would enroll 800 additional full-time students each year.
"We stepped up and said we would be willing to take some additional enrollment to try to help with the access issue," says Donna L. Kidd, assistant vice president for budget and institutional resources and reporting at George Mason. "But the state has not been able to really come forward with the funding, and without additional funding, it is kind of hard to take a lot of new freshmen."
That means that students like Ashley L. McKendree, who graduated this spring from Fairfax High School in Northern Virginia, cannot count on getting into George Mason. Ms. McKendree's 3.35 GPA is above the average of the students who were admitted to George Mason two years ago, but below the 3.39 average of students who were accepted last year. (Figures for this year are not yet available.)
She acknowledges that her SAT score of 890 -- well below the average of 1130 for students who were admitted to George Mason last year -- didn't help her much, but she assumed that the rest of her application would make her a shoo-in.
"I was going into it looking at it like, my grades are decent, my essays are good, my recommendations are good, and sure, my SAT's aren't that good, but it should be no problem," says Ms. McKendree, who wants to study pediatric nursing and psychology.
But during her spring break she got bad news: George Mason had put her on its "wait list."
"I was really upset and disappointed," she says. "It was a tough blow."
Ms. McKendree was accepted to East Carolina University, in Greenville, N.C., but George Mason was her first choice. She reserved a spot at East Carolina, but was elated several weeks later when a thick envelope arrived in the mail from George Mason. They had pulled her off the wait list.
More and more students in Ms. McKendree's high school are finding themselves in the same boat.
This year 79 of her classmates were admitted to George Mason, while 18 (including Ms. McKendree) were placed on a wait list, and 16 were rejected. Two years ago, 83 students from the high school were accepted, 15 were put on a wait list, and 9 were rejected.
The average GPA of students from Fairfax High School who are admitted to George Mason is also rising. Those admitted this year had an average GPA of 3.312, up from 3.196 just a year ago.
Renee J. Schmeider, a guidance counselor at the high school, says the increased competition to get into institutions like the University of Virginia is not much of a surprise. But the rate at which the standards at George Mason are rising has come as a shock to her colleagues and to her students.
"A school like George Mason, kids used to be able to look at it as a safety school, but now that is not the case," she says. "Students have to make themselves more and more competitive. To me, it's getting out of control."
More Housing, Less Commuting
As the competition to get in to George Mason shifts, so does the university's mission and its atmosphere.
The institution began as a commuter school for Northern Virginia residents, a northern branch for the University of Virginia when it opened 47 years ago. The university still attracts many commuters from the area, but out-of-staters now account for the fastest-growing segment of the freshmen class, and the institution is becoming a desired destination for students from across Virginia as well. George Mason has become the largest university in the state, serving more than 28,000 students on three campuses.
On the main campus here, construction zones have become a common sight in the past few years as the university has added new classrooms and dormitories. More and more students are seeking housing. By this fall, 4,000 students will be living on campus, a number that is expected to grow by an additional 500 in each of the next two years.
"Mason has that university atmosphere," Eva Fernandez, who will be a senior this fall, says as she finishes lunch at the student center between her summer-session classes. "It seems to be becoming less and less of a commuter school."
Ms. Fernandez, who graduated from Fairfax High School in 2001 with a 3.5 GPA and a 1050 on the SAT, is a commuter herself. But she says weekends on campus are filled with social activities, and few students who live here seem to pack up and go home when classes are finished for the week.
George Mason was her second choice. Ms. Fernandez, who wants to be a teacher, preferred Longwood University, a public institution in Farmville, Va., but her application there was rejected.
These days, she says, the only Virginia institution that seems to be a sure bet is Northern Virginia Community College. But there, too, providing access is becoming a challenge.
As demand grows, says Mr. Templin, the college's president, students are having a harder time getting into the classes they want. It is not uncommon, he notes, for the college's computer servers to be jammed 30 seconds after midnight on the day that class registration opens each term. Last fall 1,400 students who applied to the college never showed up for any class. Mr. Templin believes that at least some of them didn't come because they could not get into courses they wanted.
"The open-enrollment institution is an illusion," Mr. Templin says. "It's a false admission because there's no space for them."
Mr. Templin, Mr. Merten, and other Virginia college officials say that the state needs to think more strategically about how it will accommodate students and that its colleges, which operate independently, need to work together more closely to find places for the growing numbers. Virginia lawmakers should, for instance, spell out exactly how much growth each college should take on, they say, in addition to encouraging institutions to make better use of technology and work toward a more-seamless process for students to transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions.
Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, has been pushing another plan. He wants to encourage Virginia high-school seniors to make better use of their last year by taking college-level courses or beginning technical training that leads to certification in certain industries. To that end, Mr. Warner announced in June the creation of the Virginia Virtual Advanced Placement School. Beginning in the fall, the school will offer 13 college-level courses via satellite and over the Internet to allow more students from across the state to earn college credit while they are in high school.
At George Mason, university officials are forging a partnership with Osbourn High School, located in nearby Manassas, to provide students early access to college. Students entering their senior year of high school can apply to the program, which begins this fall, to take courses at George Mason's Prince William campus for half of their school day, allowing them to earn about a semester's worth of college credit before they graduate from high school. About 30 students will participate this fall, and George Mason officials say they expect to increase participation to about 100 within a year.
Lawrence D. Czarda, vice president for George Mason's Prince William campus, says the program helps high-school students get a jump-start on college while allowing the university to make more efficient use of its classrooms. The high-school students will fill less-crowded morning classes that are not as popular with George Mason students, many of whom work. At the same time, the program alleviates a space crunch at the high school and lessens the amount of time and money the students need to spend later as students at Virginia's crowded colleges.
Facing Up to the Problem
In other states, officials have been weighing various approaches to preserving college access as enrollments rise.
Some officials have suggested policies that try to free up space by providing less state aid to institutions for those students who take courses beyond what they need to graduate. California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, recommended in his budget this year that the state stop providing general funds to the University of California and California State University systems for students who take more than 110 percent of the credits required to earn their degrees.
Other strategies focus on increasing capacity. Some states are building new campuses, such as Nevada State College, which opened in 2002 in the nation's fastest-growing state. By 2009, Nevada is projected to see a 44-percent increase in the number of students graduating from its high schools.
Elsewhere, state leaders have discussed providing public funds to private colleges if they would take on students in high-demand programs. The Washington State Legislature this year passed a proposal -- which Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat, vetoed -- that would have allowed the state's private colleges to compete with public institutions for funds to provide academic offerings that would train students for jobs that are in high demand by businesses in the state.
Some states, such as North Carolina, are looking at ways to encourage more efficiencies in their systems and accommodate more students by providing incentives for underutilized institutions to enroll more students.
And others are considering revamping institutional missions. In Florida, among other states, community colleges have been allowed to grant bachelor's degrees. In Arizona, lawmakers and the Arizona Board of Regents are proposing to reorganize and expand the state's public universities. The plan would spell out who will serve the state's growing numbers of students. By 2009, Arizona is expected to see a 26-percent increase in the number of its high-school graduates.
While higher-education policy analysts laud some of those efforts, many say that states and their colleges, as a whole, have not done nearly enough to plan for growth or to put policies in place to ensure that their institutions can preserve access.
"There is still much work to be done ... to improve productivity enough to accommodate the shifting of students," says Kristin Conklin, a senior policy analyst at the National Governors Association.
She and other analysts of higher-education policy say that politically difficult decisions loom. In addition to tinkering with policies to limit demand and increase capacity, more states are going to have to consider fundamental changes in their systems, as Arizona is beginning to do.
In many of the fastest-growing states, analysts say, colleges are located primarily outside the regions of the state where enrollment is booming, often in major metropolitan areas. State officials, facing tight budgets, may have to finally confront difficult decisions to merge, relocate, or close some campuses in rural areas and small towns so they can better focus funds on institutions that have to bear the greatest brunt of enrollment growth.
Ms. Conklin points to Texas as one state that is factoring in local demand in its long-term growth plan. Under its strategy, the state allows some communities that demonstrate a certain consistently high level of enrollment at their local higher-education centers to expand their offerings and set up full-fledged campuses.
Jane Wellman, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, says another geographical obstacle exists for states to accommodate their growing numbers of students. The largest pockets of private colleges, which could be used to help take on more students, are located in places like rural Pennsylvania and Upstate New York, where the population is not growing as quickly.
Many small regional colleges and historically black institutions have room for more students, but their locations are often away from the fastest-growing states, making it more difficult for them to help with the capacity crunch, Ms. Wellman argues.
"We have a geographical mismatch," she says. "We need to match resources with need."
To do that, states first have to grapple more seriously with defining their needs and how they want them to be met, policy analysts and college officials argue.
At George Mason, Mr. Merten says his university is at a crossroads as Virginia figures out how it will handle its growing college population with limited state funds.
"We believe we have a moral responsibility to grow, and a fiscal responsibility to not grow unless growth is funded," Mr. Merten says. So for now, he says, "we have a schizophrenic identity."
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