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Originally published Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 8:19 PM

WSU bucks trend, loads up on freshmen

Washington State University will have 1,100 more in-state freshmen at its Pullman campus than last year. It's a very different approach from the University of Washington, which is cutting in-state enrollment by 150 students and adding more out-of-state students to help make up for state budget cuts.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

Washington State University

WSU is the second-largest university in Washington state, with a main campus in Pullman and additional locations in Vancouver, the Tri-Cities and Spokane.

Enrollment: Projected for fall: about 26,000 students in Pullman and Spokane, 3,100 in Vancouver and 1,500 in the Tri-Cities.

Known for: Agriculture, veterinary medicine and the Murrow College of Communication, among others. U.S. News & World Report's ranking of best colleges puts WSU 111th among national universities. It ranks 98th out of 100 top values in public colleges and universities by Kiplinger's Magazine.

Tuition and fees: $10,798 for in-state students at the Pullman campus; $22,076 for out-of-state students.

On-time graduation rate: 40 percent of full-time, first-time students graduate in four years; 69 percent in six years.

President: Elson Floyd, 55, since 2007. Floyd makes $725,000 a year, but is giving $100,000 back to the university as a response to the state's financial crisis, making his actual salary $625,000.

Source: Washington State University

This year

4,200

Freshman class (projected)

83%

Students who applied were admitted

3.38

Average grade-point

of incoming freshmen

Last year

2,980

Freshman

class

69%

Students who applied were admitted

3.44

Average grade-point

of incoming freshmen

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On Monday morning, Washington State University's Pullman campus will greet its largest freshman class ever — larger by 23 percent than any class it has ever admitted before, and bigger by more than 1,200 students than last year's class.

WSU, which last year reduced the number of freshmen admitted as a result of budget cuts, is now doing the opposite: It is growing the size of the school, with an emphasis on bringing in Washington state students. The school expects to have 1,100 more in-state freshman at the Pullman campus than it did last year.

That's a contrast to almost every other four-year public college in Washington, where the number of freshmen is holding steady or even shrinking. Only the University of Washington is expecting a bigger freshman class, but the increase is coming from out-of-state: The UW's in-state freshman enrollment is expected to be smaller than last year's by about 150 students.

WSU is attracting more students by recruiting heavily in high schools, encouraging minority students to apply and wooing top-ranked students with extra attention, easy admission and scholarships. But it's also benefiting from the UW's decision to let in fewer in-state students.

"It was well-publicized that the UW was not going to admit as many Washington students," said WSU President Elson Floyd. "There were some policy changes that really did shift the dynamics," and benefited WSU "in a really substantial way," he said.

Such a big increase will put a pinch on WSU's Pullman campus, though. For the first time, some students are tripling-up in dorm rooms designed for two, although administrators expect the problem to be temporary. And one survey shows the impact of recent state cutbacks are already resonating for some students; this spring, many say it was more difficult to get into the classes they needed to graduate on time.

To accommodate the new students, WSU is hiring, adding both tenure-track professor positions and part-time instructors. It has added classes and reduced the requirements for some programs.

WSU decided four years ago to begin aggressively recruiting students and reaching out to high-school counselors. The school also began working to recruit more minority students — diversity is "a huge priority," Floyd said — and has seen substantial increases in enrollments of Hispanic and African-American students, as well as first-generation college students.

Even though the decision to expand WSU was deliberate, the size of the freshman class "was a pleasant surprise," said Theodor Baseler, chairman of the WSU regents board. "It really was a big spike in interest from the high schools."

WSU had 13 percent more freshman applications in 2011 than in 2010, and already this year, Pullman has had more student visitors between January and June than all of last year.

In the coming years, WSU hopes to continue to expand by making it clear that serving in-state students "is sacrosanct to us," Floyd said. Washington students make up 89 percent of this year's freshman class.

The decision to grow the school is an about-face from 2010, when, not knowing how much the Legislature might cut the higher-education budget, WSU decided to shrink the freshman class, Floyd said. This year, the Legislature cut higher-education money hard, but it gave WSU the go-ahead for a 16 percent increase in tuition two years in a row. Floyd said it now makes good financial sense for the school to expand, this year and in the future.

Who are the freshmen?

Matt Campbell, a straight-A student and a valedictorian from Mark Morris High School in Longview, has his heart set on an engineering degree. At first, he figured he was destined for the UW, where he was also admitted.

But then WSU offered him a renewable scholarship covering tuition and fees. He also received two smaller scholarships totaling $4,000 — one for engineering, and one for Future Cougars of Color (his family is Mexican American). When he received very little financial assistance from the UW, the choice became easy.

It was more than just the money, though; Campbell, who made several visits to Pullman, came away thinking that WSU "had more of a 'we care' attitude" than the UW.

"The student body was a lot more of a community," he said. "They seem a lot more forthcoming, and a little more friendly." The captain of his school's water-polo team, he also liked the intramural sports program at WSU.

For many students, the sheer difficulty of getting into the UW this year made WSU more attractive. Perhaps as a result, WSU let in more highfliers than ever before; the school's Honors College for top students admitted nearly twice as many students this fall as it did in fall 2010, Floyd said.

Still, growing the student body so significantly also means broadening the definition of who qualifies.

About 83 percent of students who applied to WSU this year were admitted. Last year, the admission rate was 69 percent; the year before, 76 percent. WSU's admission rate was higher than that of Central Washington University in Ellensburg, where 79 percent of freshman applicants were admitted.

The grade-point average of an incoming freshman at WSU this year is 3.38. Last year, it was 3.44.

Floyd said the higher admission rate is largely due to WSU's decision to work more closely with high-school guidance counselors, encouraging them to target students who would be good candidates. He said there's no drop-off in the quality of candidates: "We made a decision not to erode the quality of admissions," he said.

As for the increase in diversity, "it's everything to do with recruitment and outreach," said John Fraire, vice president for student affairs and enrollment. Fraire — who is Mexican American — has developed several unique recruiting programs, including a professionally produced theater production that focuses on Hispanic students and uses writing, performance and theater to improve high-school students' college-readiness skills.

Raise tuition, cut costs

As with every other public higher-education institution in the state, WSU has seen steep cutbacks in its state funding. Students now pay 57 percent of the cost of attending school; the state picks up 43 percent.

WSU increased its tuition by 16 percent this year, to $10,798 in tuition and fees for students at the Pullman campus. The increase will bring in $67 million more in tuition dollars during the next two years.

Yet WSU will still have to shave its budget by $40 million over the next two years. It is considering merging and consolidating some departments, eliminating some degrees and using money from athletics to help balance the overall budget.

A student survey shows that budget cutbacks are already taking a toll.

Almost half of the 1,800 undergraduates who answered a spring survey said they were unable to enroll in a WSU course in the spring semester because it was already full; about 36 percent said the inability to enroll in a class delayed their graduation date.

And, although the assessment was positive overall, students complained about larger class sizes. About 41 percent said the education they are receiving at WSU is not worth the cost.

Still, the regents board has already voted to increase tuition by another 16 percent next year. With that increase, tuition will make up 60 percent of the cost of a year of schooling, and state funding 40 percent.

"My dad worked at Baskin-Robbins to put himself through WSU, and you can't do that anymore, you can't have a summer job that pays the tuition," said Riley Myklebust, WSU student-body president. He called it "a disconnect with my parents' generation," and said many students are on the hunt for part-time jobs for this school year.

Still, Myklebust said he thinks the university is doing a good job of managing WSU's growth. Most students he knows say they are getting the classes they need, and the administration has plans to ease some of the class-enrollment issues.

Floyd said the school has made some scheduling changes to ease the pinch, and eliminated the need to minor in a second subject for all academic majors.

"If we can raise tuition, and if we can increase enrollment in each of the next four years, we can absorb a lot" of the state cutback, said David Turnbull, chairman-elect of the WSU Faculty Senate and an associate professor of music. He said professors are not concerned about the size of the freshman class: "I think the faculty pretty much understands why we're doing this, and the need for it," he said.

Turnbull said the administration has been careful to try to make cuts that don't lead to layoffs, because there are few other jobs available in the small Eastern Washington town.

Tale of two schools:

UW, WSU

Washington's two largest universities have taken very different approaches to managing the impact of budget cuts.

The UW — which has seen a funding cut of $100 million for 2010 — reduced the size of its in-state freshman class by about 150 students, then admitted a larger pool of out-of-state students. It, too, is expecting its largest class ever, said UW admissions director Phillip Ballinger, although the increase is more modest — between 100 and 300 more students than it had in the peak year of 2008.

At the UW, out-of-state and international students pay about $27,000 a year; the UW makes a profit, in effect, of $9,000 on each nonresident student.

"Obviously, there's a premium in enrolling out-of-state students," Floyd said. "We've resisted that notion."

Controversial decision

The UW's decision to cut in-state enrollment was controversial, and in a comprehensive higher-education bill that passed this spring, the Legislature stipulated that next year the UW needs to bring its in-state freshman class back up to 2009 enrollment figures — about 4,000 in-state students.

Some reports say that growing the number of college graduates is an economic imperative.

In January, a governor's task force on higher education called for the state to graduate at least 6,000 more Washington resident students in 2018 than it did in 2010 — a 27 percent increase. The report noted that by the end of the decade, two-thirds of the new jobs in Washington will require postsecondary education.

But except for WSU, the in-state freshman class is going the other way this year. Western Washington, Central Washington and Eastern Washington universities are all admitting about the same number of freshmen they did last year, and The Evergreen State College is admitting fewer.

Puget Sound

students go east

Although Pullman is a five- to six-hour drive from Western Washington, about 60 percent of WSU's enrollment comes from the west side of the Cascades.

Una McAlinden and her daughter Ciara, who will be a senior this year at Interlake High School in Bellevue, took a road trip to Pullman this spring and were surprised to find how much they liked the campus. "We were just so impressed, and I saw her make a real connection to the place," McAlinden said.

The McAlindens were pleased by the amount of personal attention they were given by an assistant dean and other staff members, even though Ciara won't be applying for admission for another year.

And they liked WSU's automatic admission option, which guarantees admission to students who have a 3.5 grade-point average or higher, or are in the top 10 percent of their class, and apply by the Jan. 31, 2012, deadline.

Breann Harris-Burton, a freshman from Gig Harbor High School, said Cougar fever was infectious at her high school this spring. "My whole senior class decided to come to WSU," she said. "Last year, everyone went to Central."

Harris-Burton was dismayed at first to learn her double dorm room, on the fifth floor of Olympia Avenue residence hall, was going to be a triple.

"At first I was like, 'Oh my goodness, how is this going to work?' " said Harris-Burton, who is planning to enter the nursing program. But she and her roommates eventually worked out a room plan.

"I really love the feel of this," said Harris-Burton, gesturing to the window, where the gently rolling wheat fields of the Palouse were visible in the distance. "Compared to the UW, it's more of a college town."

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

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