Applications to some state universities are rising as budget-conscious families take a second look at public education. The effect is being seen in the acceptances and rejections: Schools are likely to turn away some students who might have qualified for admission when the economy was healthier.
At Towson University, in-state applications are up 3 percent while out-of-state applications are down, indicating that families are leaning toward their home-state universities to get in-state tuition breaks.
"Some folks who might otherwise be looking at higher-priced private colleges are saying, 'That looks out of our league. Let's look at some public options and see if it's a good fit,' " said Aaron Basko, admissions director at Salisbury, where the average score for the math and verbal portions of the SAT was 1,120 last year.
He estimates that the school's acceptance rate will be 51 percent or 52 percent this year, compared with 56 percent last year.
The University of Maryland, College Park now rejects more students than it admits. Other colleges that used to be a sure thing for decent students expect to post record low rates of acceptance this year. They don't have money from the cash-strapped state government to expand capacity, so freshman classes cannot grow to meet the demand.
"More and more students who in any other year might be accepted into Towson or Salisbury or UMBC are being turned away," said David Nevins, a member of the state Board of Regents. "This is and should be of great concern to us."
At the University of Baltimore, which has rolling admissions for freshmen, so many well-qualified students have completed their applications that acceptances are running 77 percent ahead of the same time last year.
Bridget Hiller, a senior at Hereford High School in Baltimore County, applied to 10 public and private universities. All were out of state except one: Salisbury. Hiller, 17, has two younger sisters coming behind her and says affordability will play a big part in her decision.
"My parents have told me that if I get into most of the schools I'm applying to, it will come down to cost per school," she said.
The college counselor at her high school, Kevin Ensor, said he encourages all students to apply to a state university. But as high-achieving students do so in greater numbers, he said, a student with, say, a 3.3 GPA isn't guaranteed admission.
"Some of the public schools have done a good job coming up with honors programs, accelerated learning programs, so the combination of having available those more rigorous programs plus the economic value is certainly driving interest up," said Ensor, who has been at Hereford for eight years. "This year is probably the most competitive in terms of admissions."
State universities have been able to increase their enrollment by 12,000 students systemwide in the past three years, thanks to increasing funds from the state.
The recession is changing that. The system operating budget has been cut by $15 million this year and $14 million more in cuts is anticipated. Gov. Martin O'Malley has proposed an increase of 1 percent in the university operating budget for next year - not enough for growth.
"It's going to be much more challenging in the coming year," said Chancellor William E. Kirwan. "In a time of high student demand, when there's a lot of applications and rather fixed-size universities, there will always be selectivity issues."
But even as such popular universities as Towson and Salisbury become more competitive, he said, others have room. The University of Baltimore, for instance, recently expanded from just offering upper-division courses to enroll freshmen and sophomores.
"There is no doubt in my mind that, at the end of the day, there is a place in a system institution for any qualified student coming out of a Maryland high school," Kirwan said. "It may not be their first choice, but there is a place to get a good education."
At the University of Maryland, College Park, where the average math and verbal SAT score is up to 1,263 and a quarter of freshmen have scores over 1,400, the acceptance rate has been under 50 percent since 2004.
The school is seeing a small increase in applications this year. It received about 28,000 applications for about 4,000 slots in the freshman class.
UM President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. said, "When people rationally look at the cost of their education and what real value they would get out of an education that costs two or three times as much, they more and more find it difficult to rationalize" spending the extra money on tuition at a private college.
UMBC, while keeping its freshman class at about the same size, is prepared to take more students who transfer from community colleges, said UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski. He praised the two-year colleges' preparation of students and said the state's reputation for higher education is on the rise.
"It's been in more recent years that we have been able to retain and import the highest-achieving undergraduates to public universities in Maryland," Hrabowski said. "And we have done it by doing everything we can to shed light on the strength of the academic programs."
Academics and increased selectivity could help move Maryland's public universities into the top tier of state schools, which now includes the California, Virginia, Michigan and North Carolina systems. Last month the Princeton Review named three Maryland universities among its 50 best values in public education - Salisbury, Towson and UMBC.
But Nevins, the regent, said the state should be wary of too much selectivity. Nevins is all for improving quality: He's heading a drive to keep more top students in state, called Project 1300. But he said the state must also serve students who have potential but less than stellar test scores.
"At the same time that we want to improve our quality, we have to have places for those students whose lives we want to transform," he said.
"Without growth, we're getting perilously close to not having space for those students."