TAMPA — A record number of students arrived Monday for the first day of fall classes at the University of South Florida despite budget cuts that have forced universities statewide to tighten their belts.
Preliminary figures show that enrollment is up 1.5 percent across USF's four campuses compared with a year ago, topping out at 45,585.
Most of the growth is on the regional campuses, where administrators redirected students rather than turn them away in the wake of a $35.6-million loss in state funding.
Other figures show that overall African-American enrollment dipped slightly, while undergraduate and graduate Hispanic student enrollment rose 9 percent. There is also a 14 percent increase in graduate student enrollment.
Meanwhile, USF officials say the freshman class is the strongest in the school's history, with an 11-point gain in average SAT scores and a slight uptick in grade point average.
"There seems to be an energy that's a little better than in years past," USF president Judy Genshaft said as she toured the new Marshall Student Center on the Tampa campus. "I believe people are just happy to be here."
Most of this fall's students — 38,562 — are attending classes on the main campus. Growth was minimal there, since USF, like other Florida universities, has frozen freshman enrollment.
But it's a different story on the regional campuses, where there's still room to expand. The St. Petersburg campus admitted 349 freshmen, an increase of nearly 57 percent from last year's class, bringing total head count to 3,697. USF Sarasota-Manatee enrollment rose 10 percent, while Lakeland-based USF Polytechnic saw a gain of 18 percent.
"We've started to overstretch at the seams on the Tampa campus," provost Ralph Wilcox said. "We're grateful that our colleagues on the regional campuses have begun to step up to take some of the access pressure off."
Kristen Sierra of Tampa was among about 100 freshmen who received word last spring that she would have to go to school on a regional campus if she wanted to attend USF.
"I didn't know there was a St. Petersburg campus until I was offered it," said Sierra, 18. "Now a lot of my friends on the Tampa campus are trying to get into classes that are full."
A scarcity of classes is likely to reach beyond freshmen on the main campus. Merlisia Gittens, a senior majoring in finance, learned Monday that both sections of a class she needs to graduate are full.
"I'm waiting now to see if anyone will drop," said Gittens, 22.
Her friend Heather Beisswanger, a junior majoring in accounting, had no problem getting the classes she needs. But one of her professors announced he can't afford to provide copies of the syllabus.
"He posted it online so we can print it ourselves," said Beisswanger, 21.
On the brighter side, undergraduate admissions director Robert Spatig pointed to an increase in male freshman enrollment of 8.5 percent, a statistic he said runs counter to national trends.
Among the reasons for the increase: the sluggishness of the economy, which has led to fewer construction jobs, and protracted strife in Iraq and Afghanistan, which makes military service less attractive, Spatig said.
Wilcox noted one other bright spot. While USF raised admission standards for transfer students, the university still enrolled 2,806 new transfers from Florida's public community colleges, a slight increase over last year.
"I think the key message coming out of today's numbers is that in spite of a reduction in base budget last year, we were able to enroll a record number of students," Wilcox said. "But it hasn't come easily."
Donna Winchester can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8413.