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Unable to meet enrollment goals, CSU may have to return state funds

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The California State University system has sufficient funds to admit 30,000 more students this spring than it enrolled last fall – but it will be impossible for the 23-campus system to enroll that many, CSU officials say. 

In fact CSU may be forced to return funds from Sacramento intended to educate those students. That's because it is failing to meet the target set in the budget act approved by the state Legislature and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last fall – to enroll some 30,000 extra students in its winter and spring classes.   As the Legislative Analyst's Office noted in a recent report, it will be difficult for them to spend all their budgeted resources.

CSU's predicament of having both the capacity and the funding to take more students but not being able to do so is a direct, and unintended, result of Sacramento's failure to reach a budget agreement until October last year – weeks after the academic year had already started. 

Mike Uhlenkamp, a CSU spokesman, said the targets set in the budget act were "highly unrealistic." 

"It was going to take a miracle for us to reach it," he said. "Now we will most likely not reach that target, so we will have to return some of the funding."

When the budget was eventually signed, later than at any time in California's history, CSU ended up getting $305 million more than the system had received the previous year, in addition to $106 million in federal stimulus funds. 

Based on those funds, CSU agreed to a target of enrolling an additional 30,000 students this winter and spring. As new freshman students mostly start their studies in the fall, the spring enrollment was projected to consist almost entirely of upper-class transfer students from community colleges. 

But by the time spaces opened up, many students had made other plans. In some cases, CSU campuses did not have the time to process transfer applications which are more complicated than freshman ones. In other cases, students were confused, skeptical, or unaware of the on-again, off-again availability of classes at some CSU campuses. 

The situation this spring is the reverse of what occurred last fall, when CSU reduced its fall enrollments by 20,000 students, from 433,000 students in the fall of 2009 to around 412,000 in the fall of 2010. At its 23 campuses, CSU cut 3,000 course sections in the fall. 

The situation is also the reverse of what it was last spring, when CSU effectively closed its doors to spring admissions

Since the funds became available last October, CSU campuses ramped up their course offerings, and mounted an aggressive outreach campaign to enroll students for spring classes.   

"We kept soliciting applications as much as we could, sending a message that this was a great time to apply to CSU, because we had funding, and spaces available," said Uhlenkamp. "We were trying to push the message that more so than in the previous few years, this was the best time to come to CSU."

He said that CSU campuses have collectively actually granted admission to 30,000 students, but the number of students who actually enroll – the "yield rate" in college admissions vernacular  – will be lower than the targeted enrollment. "We won't make it," he said.

Six CSU campuses operate on a quarter system, which is one reason, Uhlenkamp said, exact enrollment figures for the CSU system are not yet available. Students can still apply for admission to the spring quarter at CSU Bakersfield, which added 46 more full time equivalent (FTE) students in the winter quarter than the previous year.  

What seems clear is that CSU now faces a bizarre situation of possibly having to return money to Sacramento – even as it faces losing a minimum of $500 million in the coming school year, as proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown in his 2011-12 budget.

The chaos inflicted by the state's budget mess is evident at CSU Long Beach, the most sought-after campus in the entire CSU system. Last fall, CSU Long Beach slashed courses and its student enrollment by over 2,000 students to around 25,000 FTE students. These reductions came even as the campus absorbed a barrage of 70,000 applications from freshman and transfer students – more than all but four other colleges in the entire country, according to vice provost David Dowell. 

After last's October's budget brought in additional funds, CSU Long Beach was set a target of increasing its enrollment to 27,802 FTE students. The new goal set in motion complicated procedures on the campus to monitor student demand and to forecast spring enrollments. "A huge amount of work went into this," Dowell said. "It was not until October that we could pull out all the stops." Among other steps, the campus created a set of classes "in a shadow mode that could be moved into active status if students materialized," he said. 

Dowell said San Diego State University, another high-demand campus, is in a similar situation. The enrollment shortfalls on some campuses, he insisted, are unrelated to the huge "pent-up demand" among community college students wanting to transfer to CSU. Rather, he said, if the Legislature had approved the budget earlier, the campus would have had more than enough time to recruit the tens of thousands of students seeking transfers. 

"Had we had a few more months, we could easily have met those targets," he said. In fact, he said, "had we gotten this news between February and April last year, we could have ramped up even more. Our campus is in tremendous demand."

The Legislative Analyst's Office has recommended that instead of returning funds it won't use to Sacramento, CSU be allowed to keep them to offset the looming $500 million cut to its budget, and a potentially even larger cut if voters fail to approve a tax extension proposed by Brown. 

That could help offset intense frustrations at CSU at not being able to use all the funds sent its way by Sacramento, as it struggles to get through one of the worst budget crises in the state's history. 

"It has been a roller coaster ride," said CSU's Uhlenkamp. "With up and down funding, it has been very difficult to manage our enrollments." 


Filed under: Higher Ed, Daily Report


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