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ENROLLMENT CAPS HAVE PROVED MEANINGLESS

"A lid on enrollments likely, regents warn" - Deseret News headline.

"The state Board of Regents," the news article reads, "isn't kidding when it says many Utahns won't be able to go to college in Utah unless the colleges and universities get more money fast."". . .The talk of a (enrollment) cap is no longer rhetoric. The feared day of choice is approaching."

This news story sounds as fresh as the just-completed legislative session and this month's state Board of Regents meeting. These days, the talk in higher education circles is the funding crisis and the viability of enrollment caps and other options designed to curb skyrocketing enrollment.

But that urgent news story reveals the Chicken-Little syndrome of higher education. The story ran on Sept. 12, 1987. Officials have been crying the sky is falling for years.

Since that 1987 piece, the Deseret News has devoted dozens of column inches to higher education's dollar shortage and to enrollment caps as a possible remedy.

Last year, for example, in the waning days of the Legislature, the regents warned that 2,800 students would be shut out if the college funding was short. They got a little more money. Fall '91, however, turned out to have the biggest enrollment jump on the campuses yet. The regents backed away from an enrollment lid after a push toward open access from Gov. Norm Bangerter.

Now I'm not saying that there is no crisis in higher education. I know the colleges and universities will be hurt by too few enrollment dollars this fall.

Legislators appropriated funds to pay for only 28 percent of the projected new students. Myriad woes have plagued the state's nine public colleges and universities for years.

Faculty are leaving for greener financial pastures elsewhere. Inadequate libraries totter on the verge of accreditation loss. Students are squeezed into lecture halls holding hundreds.

What I am saying is that nobody believes enrollment-cap threats or other predictions of dire consequences.

Why? Because for the past five years, higher education has warned but never followed through.

Officials have grumbled about inadequate dollars, have vowed to turn away thousands of students, but when fall quarter comes, the admissions doors are wide open.

Now if you were a legislator and heard that the thousands of students would be turned away but none were, what would you do? You'd do exactly what Utah lawmakers have done: You'd fund other state needs over higher education.

When higher education makes do year after year, it can't expect a crisis bailout.

On March 20-21 at a Dixie College meeting, the regents will discuss a host of options designed to manage enrollment. Among them are enrollment caps, tougher admission standards, higher tuition for resident and non-resident students alike and fees or limits for remedial courses.

The regents haven't announced how they'll act, although the momentum seems to be there at least for tougher admission standards in 1993. Several of the college presidents see a combination of options as the way to fix higher education problems.

Whatever happens, it's time for higher education to quit crying the sky is falling unless it really is.