By Mary Fan
Arizona universities may soon reach capacity
The surging number of high school students clamoring for college admission will accelerate in the coming years, pushing the UA toward its enrollment limit, UA President Peter Likins said.
And the state Legislature better start preparing for it now, he said.
"What I prefer is that the state face the facts and make some decisions - I believe there are very few legislators who have even asked the questions and they should start," Likins said. "Otherwise they will find out universities have reached their capacities and there isn't a plan to accommodate the growth - then what will we do?"
The number of Arizona high-schoolers applying to college is projected to jump 60 percent in the next eight years, and the leap is already starting, said Arizona International Campus Provost Celestino Fern·ndez.
"Arizona is one of the fastest growing states in terms of high school students that will be entering college in the next 10 years," he said.
The rapid growth will push the UA headlong toward its 35,000 capacity, though just how quickly isn't clear, Likins said.
This year, the UA has 30,810 full-time-equivalent students.
"It's hard to make any predictions as to when we'll be saturated," Likins said. "We're not at the very limits now, but if you look at the demographics of Arizona you see very substantial growth to come."
Arizona State University last month announced it is two to three years from its institutional capacity.
But the university isn't alarmed, said Nancy Neff of ASU's news media services.
"That's one of the main misconceptions, that we're not ready," she said. "The main thing is we've been planning for this for the past six years - it's not a new phenomenon."
ASU's main campus, combined with ASU West and ASU East, has the infrastructure to accommodate 75,000 students - if it gets a financial commitment from the state Legislature to fund expansion costs.
"We have the architecture in place. We just need continuing commitment from the state to accommodate the capacity," said ASU President Lattie Coor.
With such a commitment, ASU, which this year has 44,255 full-time equivalent students at its main campus and about 4,000 more at its two branch campuses, can accommodate them well into the future, he said.
"We can handle it without a hitch," Coor said.
He said ASU already has a request before the Legislature for support to launch its overflow system.
"We don't have that pressure release system," Likins said.
ASU has a more extensive network of support because it is facing a greater acceleration of growth, Regent John Munger said.
"The Maricopa valley is growing faster than Tucson, so they have a much greater pressure," he said.
But the University of Arizona faces the same problem of nearing institutional capacity. If caught unprepared, Likins said, the university may become overcrowded and face a deteriorating quality of education.
"We're not allowed by the law to turn students who qualify away, so there would be a conflict between the regents' definition of limited cap and the Legislature's definition of qualifications of admission," he said. "Given that conflict, the first thing we'd see would be overcrowding."
Admissions policies may also be bent under the pressure of overcrowding, Likins said.
"At the moment, we just accept everyone who qualifies - the rules don't permit us to say, 'Well, you're qualified, but we don't have room for you,'" he said.
AIC is poised to ease some pressure on the UA, Fern·ndez said.
"That's the reason the board of regents started thinking about developing AIC," he said. "It's important that we have the two years already to develop our programs, because as the year 2000 comes around, we'll be ready for the surge in students."
Fern·ndez agreed with Likins that the Legislature should do more to address the growth issue.
"Not as much attention has been devoted to this growth as should have, but it's not too late," he said.
Fern·ndez said he would like to see the regents and the Legislature join to develop a comprehensive higher education plan that incorporates a mix of state-supported higher education options.
"Historically, Arizona has had only two kinds of higher education institutions - research universities and community colleges," he said.
Fern·ndez said he would like to see state colleges and liberal arts colleges added to the mix, as they are in California and eastern states.
Munger, however, said Arizona might be better off without such a mix.
"Frankly, we're the envy of most states who have more than two groupings of educational institutions," he said. "Those states have often lost control of the competition to the point where duplication of programs becomes rampant."
Likins said the state is faced with two options in addressing institutional capacity: expanding community colleges into a second tier of colleges into which overflow can pour, or accepting more juniors and seniors from community colleges and less freshmen.
Both Likins and Munger said they disliked the idea of expanding community colleges, favoring the second option instead.
"It would be a mistake to start yet another chain of institutions," Munger said. "We're better off working with our community colleges to provide for the educational opportunities that we need in the state."
Munger said the Arizona Board of Regents has the issue of institutional capacity well in hand - the issue is support from the Legislature.
"The board of regents has made plans to meet the challenges of reaching institutional capacity, the question is whether we can obtain the support and funding necessary to implement our projected plans," he said.
Ten years of full-time-equivalent enrollment at the UA and ASU
UA ASU 1988 30,472 34,562 1989 32,192 34,618 1990 31,872 34,057 1991 31,498 33,552 1992 31,244 34,180 1993 31,749 35,179 1994 31,669 36,153 1995 31,439 36,335 1996 30,132 37,094 1997 30,810 44,255