Utah's college enrollment boom appears to be losing steam after three straight years of gains, indicating crowded campuses are hitting a saturation point after a weak job market drove thousands to school.
According to numbers released Monday by the commissioner of higher education, enrollment at the state's eight public campuses climbed 1.66 percent to 174,013 students.
"We would have seen even greater growth this year if colleges had not been forced to limit course offerings due to space and faculty availability," said a news release quoting commissioner William Sederburg. "To reach our 'Big Goal' to achieve 66 percent of Utah's workforce with a post-secondary credentials in the next decade, it is extremely important that enrollment numbers continue to grow each year."
Currently, less than 40 percent of Utah's adult population has a college degree. For the state to achieve its 2020 goal, enrollments would have to grow by 110,000 by then, according to education leaders.
Last fall, enrollment in the state system grew by 5 percent, and 8.3 percent the year before, even as legislative appropriations were slashed. That combination made it difficult for open-enrollment schools like Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) and Utah Valley University (UVU) to accommodate everyone who signed up. Now SLCC is losing enrollment and this year ceded its status as the state's largest student body to UVU. Each has more than 33,000 students this fall, although the University of Utah remains by far the state's largest school in terms of the number of credit hours taken.
UVU gained 725 students, despite steep declines in concurrent enrollment and transfers. Hundreds of students were on waiting lists for courses as school began.
"We are not trying to get big for the sake of getting big, but there is a demand here for higher education. Our service area is growing dramatically and we are offering a product that students like," said UVU President Matthew Holland. "We could have grown much, much more. In just the freshman class we had 3,000 students who applied and were accepted but didn't enroll."
Holland's staff is surveying these would-be students to find out why they didn't come to UVU.
"We will not be surprised if the major variable is they tried to sign up and couldn't get the courses they wanted or needed and peeled off," he said. "Our initial sense is they are peeling off and not going to school, period, and that's at a time when we are pushing more students to get into higher education."
The Orem campus is building a massive addition to its science building, and is seeking legislative approval to build another multi-story 250,000-square-foot general classroom and office building in the parking area north of the library. Holland has been walling in many of UVU's formerly wide hallways to create offices for his growing faculty and trying to get money to build a home for the arts department, now housed in an old auto-trades facility.
"I only have so many hallways where I can do that," he said. "Heaven knows we need more specialized space."
Meanwhile, SLCC's enrollment of full-time equivalent students a measure of credit hours taught was down 4.3 percent.
President Cynthia Bioteau attributed the drop to the discontinuation of federal stimulus funds, which had allowed her to employ many additional adjunct faculty until this year. The college cut 133 course sections this fall after letting these professors go.
"This is deliberate and tactical as we navigate record enrollments with harsh economic realities and budget cuts," she wrote in a letter to staff and faculty.
Officials at Southern Utah University welcomed the 3.4 percent enrollment drop at the small Cedar City campus, coming after years of growth that pushed the school past 8,000 students last year. Like the University of Utah, SUU is raising admissions criteria and does not welcome large enrollment growth.
"Everything we are doing right now, including carefully re-calibrating the composition of our incoming class, is about delivering a high-quality education to our student body," said President Michael Benson. "We never feel we need to apologize for focusing on quality."
Weber State University in Ogden and Dixie State College in fast-growing St. George posted the largest year-over-year gains, at 5.6 and 3.4 percent, respectively. Both schools, along with UVU, have been expanding four-year degree offerings and beefing up student services, particularly in ways that support non-traditional and minority students. UVU's Hispanic enrollment climbed 16 percent.
Dixie is on course to become a regional university in the next few years. More students are remaining in school after earning an associate's degree to pursue one of Dixie's many new four-year programs and its year-round outdoor recreation, according to Frank Loiko, vice president for student services.
"It's the personalized thing we do. Having a safe campus and great atmosphere for learning is part of that," he said. "People want to be here."