Enrollment at the University System of Maryland is expected to decline in the coming academic year and the following year, the first projected drop since the 1990s.

More than 153,000 graduate and undergraduate students enrolled in fall 2013 at the state's public college system, but officials don't expect to surpass that number again until 2016. USM officials believe the colleges are still on track for longer-term growth, however.


Much of the decline expected this coming fall is driven by a 6.5 percent expected drop at the University of Maryland, University College, which offers online and continuing education courses. With UMUC excluded, overall system enrollment would be essentially flat, officials said.

The decline and leveling off of enrollment could affect everything from tuition revenues, to the quality of students admitted, to the amount of money needed to retain students at risk for dropping out because of financial difficulties. If the trends continue, USM officials are also skeptical that the state can meet its goal for 55 percent of residents to have a bachelor's degree by 2025.

System officials said at a meeting Thursday of the Board of Regents finance committee that the projected drop is the result of several factors, including a smaller number of high school graduates — a nationwide phenomenon — and competition from other colleges. While the university system and other colleges nationwide got a boost during the recession when many decided to go back to college, the recovery of the job market means that trend is ending.

"We are late in the game even as we speak," said Ben Passmore, an assistant vice chancellor at USM. "It is not easy to ramp up large numbers of new students into the system."

USM officials project that enrollment will rise to 171,000 students by 2023, about a 12 percent increase from the fall 2013 enrollment. But the fall 2014 university system enrollment will likely have 2,000 fewer students , with an increase of only about 1,000 students in the year after that. Enrollment at system colleges unexpectedly fell by about 2,000 students, or 1.5 percent, between fall 2012 and fall 2013. Overall enrollment also fell by about 1,000 students in the year before that.

The University of Maryland, College Park, the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and Frostburg State University do not plan to expand greatly in the next decade.

UMUC has been the source of most of the university system's overall growth in the past, and in 2010, officials thought its enrollment would nearly double in the coming decade. This fall, fewer than 37,000 students are expected to be enrolled at UMUC, down from about 39,500 the year before.

System officials hope that some colleges can gain enrollment by accepting greater numbers of transfer students, especially from community colleges. But community college enrollment in Maryland has also fallen in the last few years.

Officials are also examining other strategies, such as trying to close a gap in the retention rates between white students and students of color. But the colleges may need more funding to help financially needy students stay in school, system officials said.