S.C. State University wanted to have 5,102 students this fall, a steppingstone toward its goal of having 6,000 students by 2014.
But when officials tallied up the number of new students who enrolled and returning students who actually came back, they got a painful jolt: S.C. State's enrollment stood at 4,545.
That figure - 343 students fewer than were enrolled last fall - is the school's sharpest drop in enrollment in the last decade, according to figures from the university and the S.C. Commission on Higher Education.
The drop in enrollment is contributing to the school's already nagging financial challenges and raising questions about its enrollment procedures and 2014 plans.
"I'm concerned about the number," S.C. State president George Cooper said during an interview in his office last week.
Roughly 300 new and transfer students who were expected to enroll never did, said Charles N. Davis, S.C. State's vice president for student affairs. Another 900 full-time and part-time students - including 118 seniors - who were expected to return to school did not, David said.
University officials scrambled to figure out why.
Employees from various university offices - admissions, registrar's, financial aid, business and finance - worked in what Cooper called a "triage unit" to call students who had not completed the enrollment process.
What they learned was not a surprise.
"A lot of it was finance," Davis said. "They just didn't have the finances to close the loop."
Some students, Davis said, did not attend because they were as little as $1,200 to $1,800 short of what they needed to attend S.C. State.
Cooper said the school looked for ways to help, but, ultimately, could not enroll students who could not pay.
"We show compassion," he said, "but we also have to make a business decision."
Cooper and Davis said the difficult economy has hurt public colleges and universities across the state and the nation but has been especially tough on S.C. State.
The school, unlike some other historically black colleges and universities, is a public university. As such, it has relied on state money, in large part, that has been cut as legislators struggle to balance the state budget.
The most recent cut, which erased $729,343 from the school's budget, gave the university less flexibility to help its students, which traditionally have come from some of the state's poorest households.
Cooper said 30 percent of the university's students come from households that earn less than $20,000 a year. Another 20 percent come from households that earn less than $30,000.
"A lot of families, especially black families and Hispanic families, have not saved any money for school," Davis said. "They are very dependent on aid from the schools. Pell Grants are not going to cover the cost of your education, not totally."
More than 80 percent of the university's students are first-time college students, Davis said.
Those students are the first in their families to fill out the long, complicated federal financial aid forms and the first to deal with a financial aid office.
Cooper said student surveys have shown the university needs to improve its enrollment process.
"(Students) tell us they have to go to too many places to get things done," he said. "We've had some customer service sessions on campus with faculty and staff. We can do better."
There are plans to centralize student services, but Cooper and Davis also said the surveys showed some factors are beyond the university's control.
Students have reported they want an improved campus community - better technology, newer facilities and more entertainment options nearby.
"We've got to focus on ways to appeal to students when there isn't a movie theater or shopping mall next door," Davis said.
BUDGET CUTS AHEAD
Now, the university must focus on closing a $6 million deficit in its $70 million education and general budget, caused, in part, by the drop in enrollment.
A budget committee of the school's board of trustees recently suggested a series of actions - 10-day furloughs, job cuts, position freezes and the use of contingency and federal stimulus money - to plug the gap.
The full board is scheduled to consider those recommendations at a meeting next month.
That meeting is also likely to continue a conversation administration officials and board members have been having about the appropriate size of the university.
To get to 6,000 students by 2014, the university would have to increase its enrollment by 1,455 in five years - a tall order considering the school's enrollment has decreased in each of the past two years.
A bigger enrollment, Cooper said, does not necessarily mean more revenue, especially if the additional students have unmet financial needs the university would be compelled to meet.
"That could be a train wreck," Cooper said.
One source of support the university has been able to count on is its alumni, Cooper said.
S.C. State's alumni, some of whom have endured furloughs and cuts in their own pay, gave the university $770,000 during the fiscal year that ended on June 30. That was an increase of 23 percent from the previous year.
As he sat at a conference table in his office Thursday, Cooper said he was looking forward to the Homecoming game on Saturday, when the university planned to announce an anonymous donor has given $250,000 to S.C. State.
That gift is the largest one-time gift from an alum in the university's history, Cooper said.
The gift is particularly important, Cooper noted, because it is unrestricted, giving administrators the discretion to use it in whatever ways they think best serves the university.
Three-quarters of S.C. State's unrestricted gifts go to need-based aid, helping the university prevent the type of sharp enrollment declines it is dealing with now.
Cooper said increased alumni giving is part of the answer to the challenges faced by S.C. State, but the difficult economic climate leaves him with no clear blueprint for success.
"There's nobody you can call and say, 'How did you handle this five years ago?'" Cooper said. "We're all in this together for the first time."