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Rising enrollment strains, crowds Western Pennsylvania colleges

During her time at the University of Pittsburgh, Sandy Bly has seen the impact of ballooning freshman enrollment.

Students living in converted lounge areas. Difficulty in registering for required courses.

"It's pretty frustrating," said Bly, 20, a senior majoring in accounting and general management.

Colleges and universities in Western Pennsylvania and across the nation are coping with similar growing pains. Enrollment is rising because of a lack of jobs, employers' demands for a bachelor's degree and more older students returning to the classroom.

At Pitt, where the number of new students increased 12 percent between 2005 and 2009, students initially assigned to lounges were in regular rooms within months, said Bly, a resident assistant. Still, the problem is repeating this fall.

About 50 freshmen will start the school year at the Wyndham Hotel Pittsburgh-University Place in Oakland, Pitt Provost Patricia E. Beeson said. Officials couldn't say how long those students might be there.

At Robert Morris University in Moon, about 200 students will live at the Holiday Inn Pittsburgh Airport this year because of a housing shortage that coincides with a record freshman class of more than 900, said Jonathan Potts, a university spokesman.

Beeson said she and her counterparts at schools across the country had a tough time anticipating the sizes of last year's and this year's first-year classes.

At Pitt and RMU, more students accepted admissions offers this year — boosting freshman class sizes, officials said.

"The economic uncertainty has made it difficult to know how many students to accept," she said.

A 2009 report by the National Center for Education Statistics projected that America's undergraduate enrollment will increase by 12 percent between 2007 and 2018. That would bring the total to 17.5 million students, up from 15.6 million.

Enrollment among 18- to 24-year-olds is projected to grow by 9 percent during that period, to 12.1 million, while the number of 25- to 34-year-old students could mushroom by 25 percent, to 5 million.

"Today, you need a bachelor's degree or you're not going to do well in the short-term, the next three to five years," said John Hammang, a spokesman for the Washington-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert based in Cranberry, published a report last week that shows recessions typically spur college enrollment. The average annual increase during a recession is about four times what it is otherwise, he concluded.

Critics argue that higher-education officials haven't handled the demand appropriately this time around.

"In almost any other endeavor with a product or service, they're able to achieve economies of scale," said James A. Boyle, president of College Parents of America, a Virginia nonprofit. "Why can't they try to serve more students with a fixed level of investment, like more classes online?"

Pitt officials have no plans to add online courses targeted to traditional undergraduates, said Kit Ayars, a senior assistant to Beeson.

RMU officials plan to start eight online-degree programs this fall, Potts said, but those are aimed at working adults.

Pitt is adding class sections of key freshman courses such as anthropology and composition. RMU hired eight faculty members to accommodate its bigger freshman class and programs, in addition to adding 34 class sections for the freshmen, Potts said.

Earlier this month, Pitt announced a $17.6 million project to build 48 on-campus apartments for 155 students before the start of the 2011-12 academic year.

Pitt officials generally can guarantee only three years of on-campus living for undergraduates, said Linda K. Schmitmeyer, a school spokeswoman.

A $12 million apartment-style residence hall for 190 students at RMU is expected to open in fall 2011, Potts said.

Duquesne University is building a residence hall for the first time in about a decade, said Paul-James Cukanna, associate provost for enrollment management. Scheduled to be finished in spring 2012, the $38 million building will house 400 upperclassmen in suites.

"Our freshman class size has gone up for the past number of years," Cukanna said. "The increase has been by design — not by happenstance."

When Duquesne President Charles J. Dougherty arrived in 2001, a total of 1,191 new students entered the school. Last year, that number was 1,432, Cukanna said.

Competition in the higher-ed marketplace has compelled Duquesne officials to offer new programs, such as a pharmacy degree that students may earn on weekends, he said.

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