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Slack economy jams campuses

A baby boom 'echo' and scarce job openings have sent college enrollment soaring. Schools are straining to keep up.

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The University of Houston seniors sit on a bench outside the student center, eating Trix from a Ziploc bag and watching the crush of humanity. This year, there's even more humanity to see: Here, and across the US, campuses are experiencing record enrollments and spiraling demands on bulging, budget-strapped schools.

"This is the most students we've ever had," says senior Jason Faircloth, adjusting his backpack. "It makes for a lot of school spirit, but it also makes for ... longer waits. And the parking situation – oh, man." Enrollment here is at an all-time high of 34,455 – a 4.6 percent jump. And UH is not alone:

• At some schools, growth is stunning. Kansas State University's enrollment leapt 25 percent this fall; California State University San Marcos saw an 18.8 percent jump.

• For the first time, Washington State colleges accepted more students than the state will help fund. At one point, the University of Washington had 350 in line for beds.

• The pressure is perhaps starkest at community colleges, which are seeing double-digit enrollment rises as students hunt for tuition bargains. Traditionally open to all, some two-year schools are now turning people away.

Part of it, say experts, is the baby-boom "echo," as children of boomers hit college – a demographic blip that will ebb over the next decade. But a rapid immigrant influx and the souring economy have also made enrollment swell.

All this comes at a time when states, facing massive shortfalls, are cutting higher-ed budgets, universities are increasing tuition, and students are seeking more financial aid.

"We expected big increases from [the baby boomlet]. We knew those kids were coming," says Jacqueline King, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at Washington's American Council on Education. But what experts didn't expect was a simultaneous recession, sending people back to school in hopes of staying marketable. And that, amid huge budget cuts, is creating a "double whammy," says Ms. King.

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