Towson University is at a crossroads as it drafts a new, five-year campus master plan.
The university of nearly 23,000 students is designated by the Maryland Board of Regents as a growth institution, and already has the second-highest enrollment in the state, after the University of Maryland at College Park with 38,000 students.
Towson University, however, has little room to grow and, at the suggestion of the regents, plans to cap enrollment at 25,000 by the year 2024, meaning it would enroll fewer than 3,000 new students in the next nine years.
Officials are pondering how many more academic and residence halls to build on the main campus and what impact an enrollment cap would have on admission rates. Moreover, they are asking whether more growth is wise for a university that values its neighborhood aesthetic and its ratio of one teacher for every 17 students.
"Those are really important questions for us to address," said Timothy Chandler, interim president of the university. "How many more students can we have on campus? Will you need to build more buildings?"
He said the university is respected in the University System of Maryland for its efficient use of space, and has a little more room to grow, especially on the west side of the campus, where two new residence halls are planned.
"If [the regents] fund us commensurately with our growth, we'll be fine," said Chandler, who pointed out that eventually the main campus will run out of physical space for more than 25,000 students.
"Beyond that, it becomes very difficult," he said.
Also, there is a philosophical question of whether Towson University should expand beyond 25,000 students.
"That's a huge campus," Chandler said. "It's hard to maintain some form of geographical integrity."
"I don't think we have enough footprint to build buildings for 30,000 students," said Bob Giordani, university registrar and associate vice president for enrollment management.
One reason Towson University is designated by the regents as a growth institution is because the University of Maryland campus in College Park is not.
"There's an element of truth to that," Chandler said.
Ben Passmore, assistant vice chancellor for administration and finance for the University System of Maryland, said state schools fall into three growth categories. The first category is for those like the University of Maryland, which the regents don't want to see grow past 38,000 students.
The second category is for smaller schools like Coppin and Frostburg State universities, which need revenue growth in a competitive environment, Passmore said.
Towson leads the third category: institutions that don't need growth to survive, but should engage in smart growth, Passmore said. For Towson, that means offering more degrees that will help graduates land "middle class" jobs in Maryland.
"We're obviously going to direct our enrollment efforts to the state's work force needs," said Marina Cooper, deputy chief of staff in the office of the president. She said Towson University is the largest and oldest provider of future teachers in Maryland, with one in four teachers in the state having been educated at the university. She also said that health care majors are the most requested by new students.
Cooper said that 80 percent of Towson University graduates go on to work, live and pay taxes in the state.
"That's where Towson is going and where we want it to go," Passmore said. As a result, members of the Board of Regents said that Towson should cap its student body at 25,000.
"We're talking about a rate of growth of about 1 percent a year," Passmore said. "We're not talking about substantial growth. It's a little less rate of growth than the previous 10 years. It's still steady growth — closing on that 25,000 number. When you get beyond 25,000, you start talking about another kind of institution. Towson is going to be a big institution, but it's not going to be a giant institution."
Students and parents value "our small campus feel," Cooper said. "It shocks people ... when we say we have a 22,000[-student] campus."
The downside of limiting enrollment is that it could lower acceptance rates, making it harder for students to get in, Chandler and other officials said.
There's no statistical sign of that so far. The university's acceptance rate for fall 2015 is about 60.5 percent. In fall 2014, it was about 59 percent, which was down slightly from about 60 percent in fall 2013, but up from about 52 percent in fall 2012, according to statistics provided by Director of University Admissions Dave Fedorchak.
Some students, however, are already sensing that the university is being more selective. Coming back Sunday from spring break, freshman and aspiring teacher Keelia Decker, of Freehold, N.J., said that Towson University was her top choice of five schools she applied to, because it is known as a good school for educating people to be teachers and is only 2 1/2 hours from home. Her mother, Sue Decker, said she likes the "cozy" feel of the campus.
Keelia Decker said she got into Towson with a high school grade-point average of 3.4, "but there are some people I know who did get rejected," or didn't get into the programs that they wanted to, "which is surprising," she said.
"We have to be very careful about balancing our access, affordability and quality of programs," Chandler said. "We want to make sure we're accessible and affordable."
Some officials say the potential for growth may be online and at satellite programs in Harford County, Hagerstown and as far away as Panama, where the university offers business courses in a cooperative agreement with the University of Panama and the University of Kentucky.
Giordani cautioned that nothing is cast in stone about growth.
"The regents have not told us per se what we're supposed to grow to," he said. "It was never said directly."
In February, the university submitted enrollment projections for the next 10 years to the Board of Regents, but the 25,000 number could change in the future.
"That's just the 10th year of the 10-year projection," Giordani said. "Ten years is a long time. It's a fluid situation."