Even though the recently ended Legislature did not call for cuts in higher education budgets for 2004, the University of Utah will limit enrollment for the upcoming academic year.
Cuts already imposed over the past two budget cycles — about $35 million across the Utah System for Higher Education — have created a "funding gap," said Paul Brinkman, vice president for budget and planning. "We're out of kilter. It's time for us to rein in." He said a "freeze" limiting 2003-04 enrollment to the same number who attended classes in 2002-03 (approximately 28,300) probably will not be ongoing, depending on whether the state's economy begins to recover.
For several years, new enrollment at the U. and Utah's other state colleges and universities has outstripped new funding. And while the Legislature did not ask higher education to cut again, it did not provide any money for new students.
The Office of the Commissioner for Higher Education, in a 20-year projection, anticipated that growth would continue through 2020 at a rate of about 2 percent per year. Last fall, some 4,500 new students were enrolled across the system. Higher college enrollment is a common effect of economic downturns as people return to school because they are unemployed or want to upgrade their job marketability.
The U. has "raised the bar a bit," increasing the threshold for grade point averages and pre-college test scores for those planning to attend, Brinkman said. As the system's "flagship" school, the U. has had higher entrance requirements for some time but continues to become more selective as one way to control enrollment.
"We want our students well-prepared," said Brinkman.
How the limits will fall out across the university remains to be seen, he said, but administrators in both graduate and undergraduate programs have been forewarned to keep their student numbers at this year's level.
"It's important that we think of programs across the board. We will try not to be arbitrary," said Brinkman. "Many factors are in play here, but at the end of the day, what we want is enrollment the same as it is now."
Since U. president Bernie Machen announced in mid-January that a freeze was being considered, there has been only a "muted response," said Brinkman. "There's been no real outcry."
Good preparation and early application are the best assurances for students who want to attend the U., he said. "Make your decision early and apply early." The deadline for applications is May 1 for the fall semester.
Although Utah institutions have traditionally accepted most applicants, the increasing demand and declining state tax support have put strains on the system to provide for all comers.
Limited enrollment at the U. is expected to generated more demand at the other institutions, particularly if growth continues at the same rate. The schools with the most capacity to take more students are those off the Wasatch Front, such as Southern Utah University, Snow College, College of Eastern Utah and Dixie State College. But Utah State University, Weber State University and Utah Valley Community College all said in January that they could accommodate some growth.
Salt Lake Community College is most likely to feel a kicked-up demand when students are turned away from the U. SLCC president Lynn Cundiff told legislators an enrollment freeze is being considered at the community college as well, but a spokeswoman for the college said Friday that no such freeze is imminent.