University of Texas officials project that this fall's entering freshman class could be the largest in school history, with universitywide enrollment potentially ranking second-largest.
The surge in enrollment comes as the Austin flagship is striving to raise four-year graduation rates dramatically, from 50.9 percent for the class of 2011 to 70 percent for this fall's entering freshmen. A larger student body makes that task all the more challenging because of the need to ensure that students can get into the classes they need to avoid detours on the road to a cap and gown.
Officials expect about 8,000 freshmen to enroll this fall, up from 7,149 last year. A record 7,935 students enrolled in 2002.
"It's going to be a close call," Kedra Ishop, vice provost and director of admissions, said Tuesday. "I don't often wish for second, but this might be the time."
Officials are projecting total enrollment of 51,500, second to 52,261 in 2002. Firmer figures won't be compiled until the 12th day of the fall semester.
In a 2010 post on his blog, "Tower Talk," UT President Bill Powers said of enrollment, "When we exceed 50,000, we aggravate a serious shortage of undergraduate laboratory space for classes our students need to graduate."
For example, engineering students need to take a physics lab in the spring of their freshman year to stay on track to graduate in four years, and health professional majors need a chemistry lab in that semester.
But David Laude, senior vice provost of enrollment and graduation management, said the university is now well-prepared to accommodate the increased demand. Lab space and faculty assignments have been adjusted in the past three years as enrollment has hovered around 51,000.
"It's a large university," Laude said. "We have resources to redistribute as we need to take care of the students. As they come through orientation now, they're all getting the seats they need in their courses."
Some of the increase in enrollment is by design, and some is unexpected.
In recent years, freshman enrollment has hovered around 7,200. Officials decided this year to shoot for a class of 7,400 to 7,600, to accommodate some well-qualified students who are not entitled to automatic admission under state law by virtue of class rank, Ishop said. In addition, officials stepped up recruitment efforts aimed at getting sought-after students to enroll — for example, by placing phone calls to them.
But assembling a freshman class is not an exact science, Ishop said. The university offered admission to 16,560 applicants, and 8,484 have signaled their intention to enroll by submitting a $200 deposit. Of the 8,484, about 8,000 are expected to enroll. The drop-off, known as the "summer melt," is largely a function of some students deciding to attend another school.
Besides offers from other schools, various considerations play into students' decisions on whether to enroll, including cost, financial aid, family considerations and, as Ishop put it, "the whims of 17- and 18-year-olds."
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