"We have a very serious and somber announcement to make here tonight," UI President David D. Henry told the university's board of trustees.
The proverbial handwriting had been on the wall since about 1946, but for some reason it was big news 50 years ago this week when the University of Illinois announced major enrollment restrictions on incoming freshmen, the result of the postwar "baby boom."
It was the first time in the university's 96-year history, the Chicago Tribune reported in a front-page story, that the UI would turn away a large number of students.
"We have a very serious and somber announcement to make here tonight," UI President David D. Henry told the university's board of trustees in Urbana on May 20, 1964. "The wave of new students has hit us at a much higher rate than we had expected and we are now faced with the necessity of limiting freshman enrollment both in Urbana and Chicago for the coming September semester."
Many qualified students who had graduated in the top half of their high school senior class, and who would have been admitted to the UI in previous years, were locked out.
For 15 years, The News-Gazette reported, there had been warnings that college doors would be closed to many babies born in 1946. The Illinois Board of Higher Education had reported years earlier that the high school class of 1964 was 14 percent larger than the previous year's.
In October 1963, Dean C.W. Sanford of the UI's Office of Admissions and Records advised a high school principals association that the UI might have to turn away a "substantial" number of qualified students in the fall of 1964.
But the university didn't act for eight months as applications poured into the admissions office. By May 15, some 17,467 applications had been received, which was 26 percent greater than the number received a year earlier.
"Applications are continuing to arrive in large numbers," Sanford said, "but there are always cancellations. How many applicants will be turned away for lack of housing, faculty and academic space no one can say."
The Urbana campus provost, Lyle Lanier, said the campus wouldn't take any more than 27,000 total students, about 1,000 more than the UI had anticipated for the fall of 1964. (There were 43,398 on campus last fall.)
In recent years, the university noted in 1964, between 200 and 300 freshman women had been turned away because of a lack of housing for women (UI enrollment at the time was 69 percent male and 31 percent female; last fall it was 55 percent male), but most students were admitted. Students in the bottom half, and even the bottom quarter, of their high school graduating class could get into the UI.
But that ended in May 1964.
The UI estimated that it would turn away about 2,800 qualified students for the fall semester — 1,800 at the Urbana campus and about 1,000 at its temporary campus at Chicago's Navy Pier. (The "Chicago Circle" campus was projected to be open in February 1965).
Ultimately about twice that many qualified students — 5,457 — were turned away from both campuses, said Sanford, as well as almost 4,000 unqualified students.
"Nor do we have any way of knowing how many students were discouraged from filing applications because of publicity concerning enrollment restrictions," Sanford told the Daily Illini in September 1964.
The UI wasn't alone in shutting off admissions that year. Every other public university in the state, including Eastern Illinois University, reported a waiting list, primarily because of the lack of certified housing. EIU reported 40 percent more applications for admission that year and 425 on its dormitory waiting list.
The enrollment crisis in Illinois higher education would last at least six more years, Lanier said, because there weren't enough university buildings to absorb the coming demand, even with the opening of the Chicago Circle campus in 1965 and the beginning of a statewide junior college system in 1967.
Henry told a UI Citizens Committee that even with 27,000 students on the Urbana campus and an estimated 20,000 at the Circle campus in 1970, that probably wouldn't meet the demand. He hinted that the UI should consider building a second campus in the Chicago area.
"While a moderate degree of additional expansion may be possible at both the Chicago Circle and the Champaign-Urbana campuses, such expansion will not go far enough toward meeting the unprecedented demands which are projected," he said.
He said that since the heaviest concentration of population was in the Chicago area, it "must be the focus of intensive attention."
Henry estimated in 1964 that the number of degree-credit students in the state would increase from 243,000 in 1963 to 499,000 in 1975, and said the figure "may prove to be conservative."
It was, in fact. There were 657,891 students in Illinois universities, colleges and community colleges that year.
By 2012, according to an Illinois Board of Higher Education report, there were about 768,490 students enrolled in public universities, community colleges or independent, not for profit institutions in the state.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.