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State colleges getting choosier

Hubert Phanord considers the irony cruel:

He couldn't get into his mother's alma mater, Florida International University. But he was accepted at Atlanta's Morehouse College, a private college that is the alma mater of Spike Lee and Martin Luther King Jr.

"Why are they not admitting [more] Florida residents?" wonders Phanord, a graduate of Archbishop Curley-Notre Dame in Miami, about Florida's university system. He is attending Broward Community College to improve his grade-point average in the hope of earning scholarships to defray Morehouse's yearly $17,000 tuition.

His question is pressing for tens of thousands of high school seniors facing a grim reality: Almost 30,000 would-be college freshmen were turned away from Florida's 11 public universities in 2006, 70 percent more than in 2000.

And the picture is likely to worsen. Due to state budget cuts, the universities are not increasing the size of their freshman classes in 2008, despite estimates of 4,300 more Florida high school graduates this spring than last.

Last winter, Gov. Charlie Crist told The Miami Herald that Florida needs to build one or more new public universities to help absorb an estimated 50,000 new students in the next six years. But no new universities are budgeted for.

State leaders acknowledge that Florida didn't adequately plan for teenagers who came of age at the wrong time -- after 9/11's recession and a state budget crisis brought on by a shortfall in projected revenues. The number of graduating high school seniors in the state jumped 28 percent from 116,950 in 2000 to 150,100 in 2006.

Adding to the enrollment crunch: the Bright Futures scholarships that pay at least 75 percent of tuition at a state college or university for students who earned at least a B average in a Florida public or private high school.

A decade ago, the state promised the scholarships, but didn't plan for so many students to show up. They did. In 2006, 55,993 were awarded scholarships, a 41 percent jump from 2000's 39,729.

"We havent done a good job of planning. We have grown, but were clearly underfunded, " says Mark B. Rosenberg, chancellor of the Board of Governors of the State University System of Florida.

Centralized planning fell apart at the time when the number of students was taking off. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature abolished the Board of Regents in 2001, and universities went their own ways.

"It was assumed the State Board of Education would address those issues and local boards would be responsive, " Rosenberg says. "But it didnt work out that way, in part because [state] funding was so erratic that universities had a tough time keeping funding for the students who had enrolled."

Community colleges are the stopgap measure; they are required to accept any student. As a result, their enrollments have bulged. Miami Dade College has seen a 42 percent increase in new 18- to 20-year-old students from 2000 to 2006.

"We've been absorbing all these students, and we're happy to have them, " says Joanne Bashford, an associate provost. Miami Dade students, she adds, are going on to earn bachelor's degrees at prestigious universities, including the Ivy League.

"They've proven themselves, and they're being sought after, " she says.

But community colleges are struggling to stretch their budgets to accommodate the extra students, says Shouan Pan, provost of the South Campus of Broward Community College.

With the recent statewide budget cuts, BCC has held on to faculty but not added more, he says. Nor has Miami Dade, although it increased its full-time faculty by 5.5 percent from 2000 to 2006, Bashford says.

"In my nutrition class, we had to move to an auditorium, " says Jessica Mondestin, a second-year nursing major at Miami Dade's North Campus. "Last summer, it wasn't like that -- 20 to 25 students. Now it's over 40 students." NO NEW SCHOOLS

Florida, the country's fourth-most-populous state, hasn't built a university in the past 10 years. Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers -- the last to be approved in 1991 -- opened in 1997. New College of Florida in Sarasota was approved as an independent school in the Florida state university system in 2001, but it is a liberal-arts honors college that enrolls only 750.

Only the University of Florida in Gainesville and Florida State University in Tallahassee made the cut in the latest rankings of U.S. News & World Report's 100 top public universities.

Yet both schools are so packed they no longer automatically accept Florida's top young scholars. UF is one of the country's largest universities with about 50,000 students.

Consider the new reality:

UF can't promise to take the state's top 5 percent of high-school graduates -- an expected 7,700. UF's enrollment is limited to 6,500, says Provost Janie M. Fouke.

"We don't make any guarantees, " she says, adding "it's really hard" to choose among so many gifted students.

'OUT OF MY LEAGUE'

Kelly Donovan of Lake Worth says she knew not to apply to UF once she heard that practically every incoming freshman had earned a 4.0 grade-point average in high school.

"It seemed so out of my league, " says Donovan, majoring in education at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

In Tallahassee, FSU admissions officers are facing the same quandary. In the last admission season, they were flooded with more than 33,000 applications. More than 19,300 were rejected. Over the past five years, the rate of rejected applicants has gone from 38 percent in 2002 to 52 percent in 2007.

This year, FSU's applications are flowing in. About 5,000 students applied during the week before Oct. 10, the first deadline for applications, says Janice Finney, FSU's director of admissions.

The tight squeeze is affecting Florida International University, which in the past has absorbed 70 percent of Miami-Dade County's high-school graduates. For Fall 2007, FIU rejected almost two-thirds of those applying.

"We're supposed to be about access, but now we're becoming selective, " FIU President Modesto "Mitch" Maidique says. "We're only taking the frosting."

This fall's average FIU freshman earned a 3.66 high school grade-point average, up from 2001's 3.5 average.

Michael Hernandez of Miami, a Bright Futures scholarship winner who earned a weighted 4.1 grade-point average, was turned away from the University of South Florida along with almost 11,000 other high-school seniors.

He considers himself lucky that FIU accepted him, even if he crowds into a human-physiology lecture class with 214 other students.

"You just go in, take notes and leave. It's no problem, " he says.

Stargell Fajardo, 21, a Florida Atlantic senior from Miami Beach, says he was turned down by five colleges, including FIU. He attended Miami Dade College for a semester and then transferred to Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. "It's been a very good experience, " he says. "It's a small school. I found my niche."

Fajardo, who is president of his fraternity and is considering law school, adds, "There have been more opportunities to succeed."

Students shouldn't feel defeated if they have to go to a second- or third-choice college, he says.

High school seniors are now being warned of the increasingly tough competition. Jordan Joice, a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, is planning to apply to FAU, the University of Central Florida, Florida Gulf Coast and the University of South Florida.

But her guidance counselor is urging her to apply to 15 schools, including private colleges.

That way, Jordan says, "I'd have a better chance of getting into one."

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