Sonoma State University has exceeded its enrollment limit and could face steep penalties unless it can reduce the number of classes in which its 8,000 students enroll.
The California State University system sets enrollment targets because students' fees do not fully cover the cost of their education, and it uses the threat of financial penalties as an incentive for its 23 campuses to live within their means.
"Unfortunately, we only have state funds and tuition" to cover the system's costs, "and when state funds are cut we don't have very many places to go," said Claudia Keith, a CSU spokeswoman.
SSU's planned solution — to further cap the number of units students can take — may put it on a collision course with students who have seen three tuition hikes in a year and say they need to graduate more quickly.
"Our education is getting more expensive, and so we are less and less able to afford it," said Anthony Gallino, a sophomore. "We need to get out of here as soon as we can."
Others say the university has few options.
"It's not ideal, but the last thing we have room to do is take another (budget) cut," said Alex Boyar, president of Associated Students, the student government organization.
The CSU budget has been cut by $974 million in the last three years — SSU's by about $40 million — forcing it to educate an increasing number of students with less money. An enrollment increase of five percent is projected for next year.
SSU now has the equivalent of four percent more full-time students enrolled than the target set by CSU, which establishes the enrollment goals to match its state funding.
If the university fails to get down to that target number for the spring semester, it may be fined $250,000 for each percent its enrollment is too high.
"We overshot it in the fall," said SSU Provost Andrew Rogerson.
Unlike other state university campuses, where the actual number of students is at issue, SSU doesn't have too many students, he said.
Rather, "the students we have are taking a lot of classes" driving up the number of units being taught — and the cost.
"The trick now is to make them take less units, and that will come down," Rogerson said.
Students like Gallino say that putting the blame on their shoulders is misplaced.
"Nobody takes more units than they actually need to graduate," said Gallino. He argued that the university admitted too many students — this semester's class of 1,800 freshmen was the largest in SSU history.
A new registration protocol will take effect in the spring that should address the problem, Rogerson said. It will stagger the process so students can only enroll in a certain number of courses at a time. And they will need approval to take more than 18 units.
The plan ensures that students can get enough units to keep them on path to graduation, and that only those who need them most will be able to take more, Rogerson said.
Faculty leaders said they support the approach.
"From my perspective, the story is the conflict between the decreasing funding and the increasing demand," said mathematics professor and faculty chairman Ben Ford. "This is an attempt to manage that as fairly as possible."