Seven years after the University of Baltimore admitted its first freshman class, new President Kurt L. Schmoke is considering a return to the school's roots as an upper-division college that enrolled only juniors and seniors.
The enrollment growth that came with the first underclassmen in 2007 has stagnated. UB enrolls about 200 freshmen each fall, and the university still attracts mostly transfers and graduate students.
In an interview Friday, Schmoke spoke of flat public funding and a need to work more efficiently. He said he is seeking input from faculty, students and others on campus.
"As I look at our resources, we've got to decide where we can get the best bang for the buck, where we can achieve excellence in our programs," he said.
The University of Baltimore struggles for recognition among a crowd of schools that includes the similarly named University of Maryland, Baltimore and University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"I'd like the identity of the place to be a little clearer in the public mind," said Schmoke, a former mayor of Baltimore and dean of the law school at Howard University.
When he was hired at UB, he said, one of his Howard colleagues asked: "So where's Freeman going?" — a reference to Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the president of UMBC.
Another colleague confused UB and UMB, Schmoke said.
Schmoke, who started the job two months ago, stressed that any proposal would come out of a discussion with others on campus. He said an alternative to eliminating the freshman and sophomore classes would be to cap the number of freshmen admitted.
A decision could come quickly. Schmoke said any proposal should be presented to the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland no later than November, when the college begins the admissions process for freshmen.
William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the university system, said he believed that Schmoke was gathering information on a wide variety of initiatives at the university.
"I think it is a very natural thing for a president to do, to come in and begin asking questions," he said. "This is just one of them."
In 2006, when UB had about 5,000 upperclassmen and graduate students, officials believed the school could absorb more students and use its facilities more efficiently. It was also thought that accepting underclassmen would help UB compete with other area universities, which offered four-year programs.
Kirwan backed the expansion seven years ago.
"I was very pleased when they went to freshman and sophomore," Kirwan said. "Generally speaking, the initiative has gone well. It is modest in size."
The first freshman class began amid a surge in demand at colleges from the children of baby boomers. But enrollment growth has slowed in the last couple of years as the so-called baby boom echo has faded — a challenge confronting colleges around the country.
The university, which is known for its business, law and criminal justice programs, has increased its enrollment by nearly a third since 2006, with about 3,500 undergraduates and 3,000 graduate students in 2013. It also has expanded its footprint in the city's Mid-Town Belvedere neighborhood by renovating and constructing new buildings, including a student union, a law center and new dormitories.
But the school has struggled to graduate its new freshmen on time. Its four-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time freshmen is 8 percent, second-lowest in the University System of Maryland. The college announced it would offer free tuition to students in their final semester if they can complete their degrees in four years.
If the university stops enrolling freshmen, Schmoke said, the university can still grow by focusing on recruiting more community college graduates. In that way, he said, he thinks the college could better market itself. He said he plans to pay a visit to every community college president in the state. When visiting Garrett County's community college, he said, he learned many students there come from the Baltimore area and move back after graduation.
Some students agreed that the university has been overlooked, but disagreed about the solution.
When Brandon Martin was growing up in Baltimore, he said, few of his classmates knew of UB.
A member of the second class of freshmen admitted, the 24-year-old business administration student said he was attracted to the school in part by the move to a full four-year program.
Before the change, Martin said, "UB felt older. As they starting admitting more freshmen, it had more of a college feel."
Amber Price, who started UB in her mid-20s, said the younger students can sometimes be "a distraction" for the older students. But having a mix of young and old students has made for more engaging classroom discussions, she said.
"I think we should remain open and give it a little more time to see how it goes," said Price, now 32. "Bringing in younger people ... I think that would be a good mix for what the future holds."
Faculty were surprised when Schmoke shared the idea with them Wednesday, said Daniel Gerlowski, an economics professor and president of the faculty senate. He said reactions were mixed.
"Some faculty believe that taking freshmen is part of our mission," he said. "Some faculty see the freshman program as taking away from other programs."
Gerlowski said Schmoke assured the senate that the faculty would not be reduced if the lower-division programs were eliminated or trimmed. He said faculty members were pleased to be brought in early in the conversation.
"We're being involved in a deep way in decision making," he said. "That alone was surprising."
UB was founded in 1925 as a private school that taught courses in law and business. It joined what is now the University System of Maryland in 1975 during a period of financial strain.
The university offered a full four-year college program before 1975, but was admitted to the university system only after agreeing to limit undergraduate enrollment to the third and fourth years of college so it would not compete with Baltimore City Community College.
Famous alumni include former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, former Vice President Spiro Agnew, and District Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley, the first lady of Maryland.
Upper-division colleges were popular around the country in the 1970s and 1980s, but most have converted to full undergraduate programs, merged with community colleges or closed.
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.