CORVALLIS - The largest freshmen class in 30 years is expected to push Oregon State University's fall term enrollment to an estimated 17,500 students - and perhaps beyond.

In fact, OSU officials say it isn't out of the question that the university may approach its all-time record of 17,689 students, set in 1980.

"Students are clearly excited about the direction that Oregon State University is heading and want to become a part of it," said Tim White, OSU provost and executive vice president. "It is particularly gratifying to see more of Oregon's best and brightest high school seniors electing to attend OSU."

Bob Bontrager, assistant provost for enrollment services, said the number of students admitted for fall term is up by 11 percent over last year. "Admissions don't, of course, always translate into students on campus," Bontrager said, "but we take that into account with our projections. And the numbers look encouraging. They reflect the combined efforts of many people and departments across campus who have worked hard to recruit students."

OSU will have adequate space in its residence hall system to accommodate the growth, officials say, though the first couple of weeks "may be tight" until things are sorted out, according to Tom Scheuermann, director of University Housing and Dining Services.

"Buxton Hall is back on-line this fall, so we have additional space over last year," he said. Construction will begin soon on OSU's first new residence hall in almost 30 years.

A student enrollment of more than 17,000 represents a remarkable turnaround for OSU in just five years. In 1996, the university's enrollment had plummeted to 13,700 - the lowest it had been in 30 years. OSU President Paul Risser arrived on campus that year and pledged to make students the university's top priority, then backed up that initiative by investing resources in student services, recruitment and marketing.

"Perhaps more importantly, he helped focus an attitude on campus by faculty, staff and administrators that the most important thing they would do each day was make the life of at least one student better," White said.

"It had a direct and immediate impact on the mindset of the campus community."

The student enrollment momentum continues upward. This fall, Bontrager anticipates 3,200 new freshmen students with the largest proportional increase coming from in-state students. Last year, OSU enrolled 2,813 new freshmen.

And the 2001 freshmen class excels in the classroom, continuing a recent trend. For several years, OSU has had the highest grade point average in the Oregon University System for entering freshmen. This year's class includes 12 National Merit finalists and 90 valedictorians from Oregon high schools.

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Bob Bontrager, 541-737-408