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USF rethinks its recruiting of freshmen

Published Oct. 18, 2005

Fewer freshmen than usual chose to attend the University of South Florida this year, prompting admissions officers to review their marketing strategies in what has become a growing competition for young college students. "Yes, it is very much a concern," said USF admissions director Vicki Ahrens, commenting on the size of the freshman class this year.

No one had expected the class to be smaller, she said. But of the applicants who were accepted, fewer students than usual accepted USF's invitation to attend.

"We don't know why," Ahrens said.

But the possibilities she and other officials are considering include economic worries, out-of-state competition, a larger number of students applying to numerous schools, and a reportedly larger freshman class at the University of Florida (UF), traditionally a first-choice school for many Florida students.

So USF is reviewing all its recruiting practices and it plans to be more visible in places where it typically has attracted stu


Historically, USF gets fewer applicants than either UF or Florida State University, its major in-state competitors, leading to suggestions that, for undergraduates anyway, it is a less attractive school.

Concerns about the freshman class undercut some of the good news about USF enrollment that was released this week.

Total enrollment reached 32,360 students _ 722 more than last year and an all-time high. USF, the state's second-largest university, also narrowed the gap between itself and rival UF, which grew slightly from 34,022 to 34,198.

While USF has more students, it has less money to teach them, said Carol J. Rolf, assistant vice president for academic affairs. That means USF students will suffer larger classes, fewer class offerings and scarcer resources such as library books _ perennial concerns at the fast-growing school.

And though no one at USF would admit Thursday to a conscious drive to become larger than UF, a spokesman at UF said the narrowing gap is the result of a conscious decision to hold down enrollment there, precisely to avoid the class-crowding and other problems that plague the Tampa-based school.

UF's enrollment has actually declined in the past six years _ it was 36,010 in 1984, spokesman Joe Kays said. "That's by design, just to decrease the class size."

But now that UF recently finished a major capital funds drive and other planning measures, UF president John Lombardi has said it may be time to increase enrollment to 40,000, Kays said.

Kays said no one yet knows the exact size of UF's freshman class. Classes were disrupted early in the semester by the murders of five Gainesville-area students.

Enrollment growth is a touchy and difficult subject for many university administrators in Florida. The state university system and the Legislature are often at odds about how much money will be allocated to pay for enrollment growth. And relatively young universities such as USF often claim that student demand makes them grow faster than the Legislature pays for.

That, at least, didn't happen this year, USF's Rolf said. The Legislature agreed to pay for all the enrollment growth that USF requested. The freshman class may be smaller, but most upper-level classes are bigger, including a 9 percent increase in graduate students.

But USF has had to absorb two across-the-board budget cuts, including one after the academic year began, which erased the extra money the Legislature sent along for growth, Rolf said.

The simple result: Higher enrollment plus budget cuts mean less money spent on each student.

"We water the soup," Rolf said.