The number of new freshmen enrolled at the state's three largest public universities declined at least 10 percent the past two years, officials say.
A drop in the number of Kansas high school graduates is the main reason for the decline, said Ray Hauke of the Kansas Board of Regents' staff.
Other possible explanations are the inability of some families to pay higher tuition rates and the greater attraction of Kansas community colleges.
"The biggest reason is the numbers of high school graduates are declining," Hauke said. "All would acknowledge that there is an elasticity rate for tuition."
JITTERS ABOUT the economy have made many high school graduates look at community colleges, where they can complete two years of their education for a fraction of the cost of a four-year institution.
Hauke said the Kansas high school graduation rate was projected to decline until 1994 before rebounding.
"The number is likely to go up within the next few years," said Del Brinkman, KU vice chancellor for academic affairs.
Hauke said enrollment of new freshmen hasn't declined because colleges and universities in Kansas have become less attractive.
"Our participation rate has remained constant and very high," he said. "Kansas ranks in the top five in terms of students who remain in the state for higher education."
Kansas University officials categorize "new freshmen" as students who are attending college for the first time or students who have some college credit and graduated from high school the spring before the fall college semester begins.
The decline in new freshmen has been the sharpest at Wichita State University, which experienced a 21.6 percent drop (2,098 to 1,643) since 1989.
The decrease at Kansas State University was 15.6 percent. New freshmen numbers fell from 3,275 in 1989 to 2,764 this fall.
At Kansas University, new freshmen enrollment over the past two years declined 10.1 percent, from 3,730 to 3,352.
KU'S NEW freshmen enrollment currently matches the 1981-82 level. Since 1987, the tally of new freshmen has dropped 1,010.
Sally Frost-Mason, KU associate dean of liberal arts, said a decline in new freshmen at KU was negated by the addition of more transfer and graduate students.
"It doesn't feel that we have any fewer students, whether they be freshmen or otherwise," she said.
KU's introductory courses remain packed because sophomores, juniors and seniors who couldn't get into the courses previously are gaining access now, Frost-Mason said.
"So the decline in new freshmen hasn't eased the pressure in those areas it might be expected," she said.
At KU, enrollment of out-of-state new freshmen increased during the 1980s. During the decade, in-state new freshmen enrollment dropped at KU.
From 1980 to 1990, resident new freshmen enrollment at KU declined 6.4 percent, while enrollment by non-residents climbed 29.2 percent. Overall, new freshman enrollment increased 4.9 percent.