College boom, yet seats to spare

Maryland: While enrollment is up at some schools, historically black institutions are finding it hard to attract students.

April 15, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

At Salisbury University, they're running out of room. More than 6,200 students are packed into the increasingly popular state college, which now turns down more than half its applicants.

It's a different scene just 12 miles south at the historically black University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne. The 620-acre campus is studded with gleaming new buildings - but there are only about 3,300 undergraduates to use them.

The contrast points to a quandary facing Maryland higher education officials that few like to discuss publicly. At a time when the college-age population is booming and the most popular colleges are turning more students away, most of Maryland's historically black universities have room to spare.

Maryland has four historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, an unusually high number for such a small state. The government has spent millions on the campuses in recent years, and is planning to spend millions more, in hopes that the schools will draw thousands more students of all races.

But that has yet to happen.

"You've built all this stuff and no one's coming to dinner, and that's a shame," said Edwin S. Crawford, a former University System of Maryland regent. "It's a terrible dilemma."

Officials say it is hard to say how many more students the underenrolled colleges could handle, but they hope that with additional construction they will grow by nearly 7,000 over the next decade.

Bowie State University - a 338-acre campus in the middle of populous Prince George's County and directly on a commuter rail line - has just 4,000 undergraduates, many of them part time. That is 10,000 fewer than at the state's other centrally located "comprehensive," or nonresearch campus, Towson University. It's smaller even than the most remote campus, Frostburg State University.

At 11 on a sunny midweek morning at Bowie, only a handful of students can be seen crossing the main quad. In a big, new academic building, every other classroom sits unused.

"There definitely could be more students here," said Johnna Turner, a junior from New York.

The scarcity is even more striking on the huge UMES campus, where the state has spent $128 million on new buildings since 1989 - more than at Towson or Salisbury. At many hours of the day, its new student center, with a 500-seat movie theater, bowling alley and ballroom, is practically empty.

Morgan State University, the largest of the HBCUs, with about 6,000 undergraduates, has struggled even more than Bowie State and UMES to attract nonblack students. Coppin State University has only 3,200 students, a third of them part time. All four of the historically black colleges and universities have lost hundreds of students this year because of unpaid tuition bills.

Higher education officials say there are deep-rooted explanations for the low enrollments but acknowledge that the state must get more out of its HBCUs.

"We clearly have to figure out how to make the most efficient use of our current collection of institutions," said David H. Nevins, chairman of the Board of Regents Finance Committee.

That won't be easy, he added. The state can only do so much to nudge students to go where there is space.

"We can steer students somewhat, but we can't gain total command of the marketplace," Nevins said. "We can't force students to any one place."

Enrollment crunch

Concerns about the coming enrollment crunch abound among state education leaders, who are working on an enrollment management plan. There are 73,000 undergraduates in Maryland's university system, which includes all public four-year colleges except Morgan State and St. Mary's College.

System officials project that in 10 years, the demand for seats will have risen to 92,000. The surge is being driven by the demographic trend known as the baby boom echo, by the system's growing reputation and by an expected increase in the rate of high school graduates going to college.

Officials are grappling with where to put the additional 19,000 students, and even under their most optimistic projections, they expect that the system will be 7,000 slots short.

"If you don't meet [that demand], you're actually turning away students from a four-year college experience," said system Chancellor William E. Kirwan.

The two big research schools - the University of Maryland, College Park with about 25,000 undergraduates, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with 9,600 - have capped enrollment to remain selective.

Towson and Salisbury are planning to handle another 4,200 students combined, if they get funding for new buildings. System officials also want to increase enrollment at the University of Baltimore, where transfers from community colleges, the school's target audience, have sagged in recent years.

But officials hope that much of the added demand, about 5,000 students, will be absorbed by the system's three historically black colleges and universities - meaning that their enrollments would have to grow by 50 percent over 10 years.

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