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Enrollment at CSUN Falls to 21-Year Low

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Earthquake-battered Cal State Northridge launched the fall semester Monday with its smallest enrollment in 21 years, though students said opening day on the still topsy-turvy campus was much less confusing than last spring’s chaotic start.

There were the predictable problems with a 353-acre campus--still largely housed in portable bungalows--as class site changes sent students on futile hunts and a lack of air conditioning in some areas left people sweltering. There also were the typical bookstore and student center lines.

“Basically, you can tell it’s the first day of school because everything’s a little unorganized. But I’m sure everything will fall into place,” said a confident Rachel Allen, a 17-year-old freshman who said she decided on CSUN before the January earthquake and never changed her mind.

Senior engineering major Steve Pelaez, who was working as a student registration assistant, said he thought this fall’s process was the smoothest yet for students. But speaking for the returning students, Pelaez said, “I think everybody wanted to come back, finish and get out of here.”

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Not everyone came back, however. University officials reported Monday that fall enrollment as of the end of last week was 23,379, down 10% from last fall’s 26,023 figure at the same time and the lowest figure for a pre-fall semester tally since 1973.

Even before the earthquake, CSUN’s enrollments had been on a downward trend in recent years, a decline university officials have blamed on the recession and rising state fees. But unlike CSUN, the 20-campus Cal State system expects this fall’s enrollment to remain at about last year’s 326,000 figure.

CSUN spokesman Bruce Erickson acknowledged that some of the enrollment decline may be related to students deciding to avoid the still-damaged campus, but he insisted that state fee hikes have played a larger role. Before the earthquake, CSUN’s enrollment dropped about 7% from fall, 1992, to fall, 1993.

When a devastated CSUN opened last spring’s semester two weeks late because of the Northridge earthquake, the scene was chaos with crews of workers still assembling portable classrooms as student waited for classes. The estimated $350 million in damage was the costliest ever for a U.S. university.

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On Monday, nearly eight months after the quake, the confusion was modest by comparison. “I think we have validated and are continuing to work toward achieving the words of our slogan, ‘Not Just Back . . . Better,’ ” said CSUN President Blenda J. Wilson, acknowledging the progress.

The central portion of the Delmar T. Oviatt Library reopened Monday for the first school day since the earthquake, drawing much appreciation from students. And more areas of the campus’ permanent buildings were returned to service over the summer, though many facilities can still only be partly occupied.

Wilson, whose own office is now in a portable building, said she expects it will be two years before she can return to her office in the campus’ closed Administration Building, which is near last on the list for repairs. Officials say restoring the whole campus will take two to three years.

Typifying the opening day confusion was freshman Paul Sipper, 18, who went on a 45-minute hunt for a morning class after finding a sign at its scheduled site that said the class had been moved. After finally finding the new location, Sipper arrived 15 minutes late but still before the instructor appeared.

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Sipper said he sweated through another class, a three-hour lab, in a building that had no air conditioning. Freshman Corey Williams, 19, reported the same problem in a morning art class, but said he was nonetheless pleased with the first day of school, a view echoed by many students.

The efforts of university officials to plaster the campus with handouts and billboards directing students among CSUN’s dozen villages of portable classrooms also made an impression on Williams. Asked about his first day, he said, “Long lines and I’ve never seen so many maps in my life.”


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