The leaders of Texas’ biggest universities often describe their schools as essentially small cities. If that’s true, Texas A&M University is a boomtown.

Enrollment has exploded at A&M in the past decade. In 2010, the university had just under 50,000 students, a bit smaller than the University of Texas at Austin. Now, that number is over 66,000, making A&M easily the biggest school in the state and one of the biggest in the country.

School officials say the growth has come in response to calls by state leaders to increase the number of young Texans earning college degrees, especially in sought-after fields like engineering. But the fast pace has also strained resources. While trying hard to preserve its academic strengths, A&M has struggled to keep up with other needs — classroom space, dining services and counselors.

In other words, good luck finding a parking space on campus these days.

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“The infrastructure here has had a hard time keeping up,” said Joseph Hood, a graduate student and speaker of the student senate.

Keeping academics steady

Where exactly A&M ranks on the list of the biggest universities is open to interpretation. Its published enrollment of 66,426 would put it slightly higher than the University of Central Florida and Ohio State University, which often rank at the top of such lists. But A&M includes its branch campuses in Qatar and Galveston and its law school in Fort Worth in enrollment counts, so not all of those students are on the College Station campus.

But one thing is clear: The growth in College Station has been huge. This fall, the official number of students on the main campus is 60,438. That’s about a 10,000 increase since 2010 — essentially an already massive school adding the equivalent of the total enrollment of Texas Christian University over a short span.

And A&M so far hasn’t put much emphasis on online courses or distant learning. Almost all of those new faces are traditional students who live on or near campus and are expected to show up for class every day.

Many of the new students are studying in the high-profile college of engineering, where A&M plans to have 25,000 students by 2025. But each college has been asked to increase its number of students, officials said.

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For fall 2014, the school set a goal of increasing its freshman enrollment by about 1,500 to around 9,700. It ended up overshooting that, with 10,300 freshmen accepting offers of admission that year. Each freshman class after that has stuck around that 9,700 goal, but enrollment has been ticking up because those new students are replacing much smaller senior classes.

The growth has chagrined many A&M students and alumni, who expressed concern that the school would have to lower its admissions standards to meet its goals. On social media and online Aggie forums, former students stressed that their old school was becoming a diploma mill. But A&M officials said they have made sure that wasn’t the case. At A&M in 2015, a student would have had to score higher than a 25 on the ACT to rank in the top 75 percent of incoming freshmen. That's slightly up from 2010. 

“Nothing about what we were doing had anything to do with lowering standards,” said A&M Provost Karan Watson.

The growth in enrollment has been accompanied by a surge in hiring of professors. That has kept the student-to-faculty ratio about the same. And early indications suggest that graduation rates will remain steady, too.

“When taking on growth of this magnitude, there will certainly be some missteps, but we seem to have handled it better than most have expected,” said Jaime Grunlan, a prominent engineering professor and early skeptic of the influx of students. “Now that the dust has settled a bit, I’ve come to appreciate the positive aspects that the growth will bring.”

66,000’s a crowd

But changes have been felt in other areas. The number of classes with more than 100 students grew 17 percent since 2010, to 439 in 2015, according to A&M data. And with limited classroom space, it’s not uncommon for students in science courses to be assigned laboratory classes that run until nearly 10 p.m.

A&M’s student counseling services have been relocated to the edge of campus — far from where most students live and take classes. And the number of advisers and counselors hasn’t kept up with the growing population. This fall, the school has begun offering informational videos, online exercises and video consultations for students who need help.

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During lunchtime, the dining halls are overcrowded, forcing some students to eat on the floor. And the influx of students has created transportation problems. Students have reported cramped buses. Traffic has increased on Bryan and College Station streets, and parking has become harder to find.

Hood, the speaker of the student senate, said he often rode the bus two miles from his apartment to campus last year. It sometimes took him about 45 minutes to get to class, he said.

He and other students have been speaking out. In the two previous school years, the student senate passed resolutions asking school leadership to slow the growth in enrollment.

“It has definitely been felt,” he said. “We have been able to voice those concerns.”

Watson said administrators understand. A&M’s faster-than-expected growth in 2014 helped create the situation. But the way the state funds higher education has also played a role. The Texas budget is written every two years, but for higher education it’s done in a backward-facing manner. Dollars are allocated based on enrollment in the year that the budget is written — not on how the population is expected to grow. So A&M is still being funded like a much smaller school.

But getting much more money next year could be a challenge. With tough budget times ahead, cuts in higher education are a possibility.

Either way, school officials say they have grown about as much as they can for now. Enrollment will likely go up once more next year as the last of the smaller senior classes graduates. Then it should stagnate — somewhere a little higher than the 66,000 it is today.

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