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Ringing in a new year // "Baby boom echo' to strain universities

Florida's high schools will be turning out so many more graduates during the next decade, it could be tougher than ever to get into a state university.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of high school graduates in Florida is projected to rise about 45 percent between now and 2006. Only Arizona, with an expected 51 percent increase, will grow more quickly in that area.

"You're going to have phenomenal growth in high school graduates," said David Longanecker, an assistant secretary at the federal agency.

Longanecker was in Tallahassee on Wednesday to release the federal report, timed to coincide with the first week of school for most districts. The report says the nation's public and private schools are expected to have 51.7-million students in kindergarten through 12th grade this year, a record. Of that figure, 2.2-million are in Florida public schools.

The report calls the increases the result of a "baby boom echo," as children of baby boomers move through the nation's schools.

But in Florida, the changes are just as dramatic as the first boom, due to the echo and a steady flow of immigrants and other new residents.

The current boom is "just as strong a baby boom for Florida as the first one (of the 1950s and '60s) was," said Martha Miller, education policy analyst for the state Department of Education.

All this means that the state will face more students than ever seeking scarce spots in the university system.

"You're already stretched," Longanecker said. "We'll have to respond in broader fashions. It may be new technologies, it may be new facilities."

But growth is slowing at lower grade levels. So even as high school graduates increase dramatically, the overall enrollment growth in kindergarten through 12th grade is starting to slow down, state officials say. Which is a good thing, considering the state's schools already are the biggest in the country.

"Your average school sizes are 10 percent over the national average here in Florida," said Longanecker. "So you don't have much flex in your system."

National college enrollment is expected to rise by 14 percent in the next decade, and the fastest growing segment of the student population will be Hispanic and African-American students.

Florida university officials expect enrollment statewide to grow by 30 percent by 2008.

"We're going to have a problem with the growth," said Frederick Humphries, president of Florida A&M University, where this year's freshman class includes 200 to 400 more students than last year's. "We're anxious. We want to serve this surge of students."

Meanwhile, community colleges, whose students average 30 years old, won't be immediately affected by all these new high school graduates.

To handle some growth, the state is preparing to open Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers next year, with about 5,000 students.

The state also is considering distance learning programs, where students can take classes by computer or television. At Gulf Coast, the state's 10th university, 20 percent of the students will use distance learning, said Alan Stonecipher, spokesman for University Chancellor Charles Reed.

Building more universities has not been discussed, but clearly the universities will need more money to deal with the growth, he said.

"Unless we have the political will to deal with it, we're going to suffer in the future," Stonecipher said. "We're going to have to absorb that growth with a tax system that doesn't keep up."

Florida's growing school enrollment

TOTAL ENROLLMENT: 1986:2006

Grades K-12, public schools

1986 1996 2006 (proj.) % change

Florida 1,607,000 2,235,000 2,333,000 +45.2%

South 14,312,000 16,384,000 17,414,000 +21.7%

United States 39,753,000 45,885,000 48,528,000 +22.1%

GROWTH K-8

Largest enrollment increases 1996-2006 in thousands

Calif. 1,063

Texas 298

Washington 133

Georgia 113

Virginia 110

N. Carolina 110

New Jersey 109

Florida 98

GROWTH 9-12

Largest enrollment increases 1996-2006 in thousands

California 525

Texas 138

Florida 117

New York 116

N. Carolina 82

New Jersey 81

Virginia 78

Illinois 72

GRADUATES

Largest % increases public high school graduates 1996-2006

Arizona 51%

Florida 45%

Hawaii 44%

Maryland 44%

N.H. 31%

N. Mexico 31%

Source: U.S. Department of Education

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