College Enrollment Caps: What to Know

Public colleges and universities were designed to serve the educational needs of those who live in the state. To uphold that mission, some schools and states set enrollment caps or limit the number of out-of-state students that can be admitted each year.

There are still incentives for public universities to accept out-of-state students, however. Nonstate residents not only bring varying perspectives to the classroom, but they also generate more money for an institution – the average tuition cost at a public college during the 2021-2022 school year for out-of-state students was more than twice as high as it was for in-state attendees.

“Historically, we’ve seen some public systems and states look to out-of-state students particularly in times where they need to meet extra revenue or don’t want to increase tuition on their in-state students,” says Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates, a nonprofit that advocates for federal higher education policy reform.

What Are College Enrollment Caps?

Enrollment caps occur at both public and private colleges. Schools not only impose restrictions on total enrollment, but also cap the size of specific programs or classes in order to advance strategic priorities, like maintaining faculty-to-student ratios, meeting revenue goals, serving local students and managing the growth of academic programs, says Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, a membership organization for higher education institutions.

Some state systems set enrollment caps, while others are determined by the individual school based on their physical size constraints or desire to create exclusivity.

“We don’t start this cycle of admissions thinking about, ‘Here’s my cap and that’s how I’m admitting students,'” says Corinne Smith, co-author of College Essay Journal: A Mindful Manual for College Applications. “Even as an admissions officer, I might not be aware of the enrollment caps until a couple of weeks out from decision day. They change from year to year.”

Public colleges that exceed their enrollment capacity are subject to a fine from the state or may have to delay admission for some students.

The University of California—Berkeley, for instance, recently found itself in the midst of an enrollment challenge when a judge froze fall 2022 enrollment numbers at 2020-2021 levels. The ruling was issued by an Alameda Superior Court judge in August 2021 after the local community group, Save Berkeley’s Neighborhood, filed a lawsuit – in relation to the California Environmental Quality Act – claiming the increase in student enrollment would create housing scarcity and noise issues.

This would have forced the school to reduce the number of undergraduate students enrolled for the 2022-23 academic year by about one-third. That court decision was overturned in March 2022, restoring more than 3,000 slots at Berkeley for first-year and transfer students.

Other states are also reconsidering their current policies.

This policy change gives more students from around the country the opportunity to attend an HBCU, as many are concentrated in the South or on the East Coast. North Carolina A&T, which experienced an influx of out-of-state applications in recent years, can now meet enrollment demand, says Dawn M. Nail, the school’s interim associate vice provost for enrollment management.

“It also allows us to have a more diverse student body,” she says.

What to Keep in Mind When Applying

When coming up with a list of schools, refer to college websites to learn about admission rates – the percentage of in-state and out-of-state acceptances – enrollment sizes and program capacity. If those numbers aren’t available online, experts suggest reaching out to a school’s admissions office and asking questions.

But even if an applicant is aware of the enrollment caps at a college, “it’s not something to play a strategy game with,” Smith says.

“While I do think it’s necessary to have knowledge of the process if a student has access to it or if a parent has access to it, it’s not going to make or break their application to be knowledgeable of what the enrollment cap is in a given year,” she adds.

Enrollment caps can create more competition in college admissions, but they shouldn’t dissuade a student from applying to a certain school. Instead, experts say students should focus more on what can be controlled, like choosing a mix of selective and less-selective schools, putting together a strong application and applying early to top-choice colleges.

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