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Snug as a bug in a college dorm

Record numbers of freshmen have area schools looking for room

Colleges throughout the Inland Northwest are bracing for record freshmen classes this fall, and officials are looking for places to put them all.

At Washington State University, the dorms are essentially full and the university has stopped taking housing applications from anyone but freshmen, who are required to live on campus. WSU is expanding some rooms and considering having students live with residence advisers, who typically get single rooms.

It’s a similar story elsewhere. The University of Idaho anticipates that this year’s freshman class could approach a double-digit increase over last year. Gonzaga and Whitworth universities found their plans for slow, steady growth upended.

It’s all being driven by a steadily growing population of college-age students.

“The number is just massive compared to 10 years ago,” said Julie McCulloh, dean of admissions at Gonzaga. “There’s just a lot of young people right now.”

Washington’s growth in college-age students has been modest compared to some states. State officials projected a growth of 8.5 percent in high school graduates between 2002 and 2018. Other states have seen much more rapid growth, but nationwide the trend is expected to begin waning.

It’s too early to pin down exact numbers, but most colleges in the region got a lot more applications this year and will be enrolling record numbers of freshmen. WSU had about 10 percent more applications and expects a freshman class of between 3,200 and 3,300 students, up slightly from last year, said John Fraire, vice president of enrollment management.

WSU has already reached its capacity of roughly 4,650 students in university housing.

“We’re very full,” said Bob Tattershall, director of housing services at WSU. “It’s not typical.”

Across the state, the University of Washington has been turning away more applicants each year. For the 2008-09 school year, it accepted 12,000 of its 20,000 applicants. Enrollment officials say that when UW turns away students, some of that ripples through the rest of the state. But some of those students also go out-of-state, officials said – at a time when the state is pushing universities to educate more Washington residents.

Fraire said WSU is preparing for an upcoming dip in the state’s high school population and trying to ramp up its recruitment efforts of students who might consider attending college out of state.

“We’re targeting a lot of those students and encouraging them to stay in Washington,” he said.

Eastern Washington University saw a much more modest increase in applications this year – about 2.5 percent – but is anticipating a slightly larger freshman class, as well. More dorm rooms have been reserved than at this time last year, said Dave Meany, EWU spokesman.

EWU, which draws a lot of its students from Spokane County, could be hit harder by flattening high school classes in the future, and President Rodolfo Arevalo has said the university needs to prepare for the possibility of slow enrollment growth.

At the University of Idaho, Bruce Barnes, assistant vice president for enrollment management, said the growth in the upcoming freshman class could be near double-digit. He said that it’s partly a result of larger high school graduating classes, but it’s also a sign of the university’s recovery from financial and public relations problems stemming from its mismanaged efforts to expand into Boise.

“I don’t want to put a number on it yet, but we’re really happy about how things are shaping up,” Barnes said.

Ray Gasser, director of UI housing, said about 400 more students are signed up for housing than at this time last year. But “we believe we’ll still be able to accommodate everyone,” he said.

Spokane’s two private universities, Whitworth and Gonzaga, both have had goals of keeping student growth in check to avoid expanding faster than campus resources. But this year both schools are expecting freshman classes that are beyond their goals.

Fixing an exact enrollment target is impossible; colleges accept applicants but can’t predict precisely how many will enroll. So at Gonzaga, a class of about 1,100 is expected, about 30 students more than the school had set as a goal.

“We’re accommodating everybody this year, but we’re stretching to do that,” McCulloh said.

Whitworth’s freshman class is expected to be about 557. That’s an increase of 4.5 percent over last year, while the university’s goal is to grow at 2 percent a year, said Fred Pfursich, dean of enrollment services. “We were planning on having a class slightly smaller than last year,” he said. “But what’s happened is we already have a higher number of students enrolled.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or