Students signing up for classes this month at Central Georgia Technical College aren't standing in the long registration lines that just a few years ago made the campus look like an outpost of the old Soviet economy. That's not because enrollment is down. Undergraduate population has more than doubled in the past five years. What the school has done is relocate the lines to cyberspace, with most of the signups taking place through computerized pre-registration. Central Georgia has pretty much been forced to do that--if it hadn't, the crowds of students converging on the registrar might have been so large as to generate physical gridlock.

It's just one small example of how colleges all across the country are learning to cope with a huge cohort of people flooding onto campus. There are two separate groups in this cohort right now: large numbers of 17- and 18-year-old products of the baby boom echo, and adults returning to school to pick up new skills and training.

It's the latter group that's having the bigger practical impact as the 2001 fall term begins. Colleges and universities, faced a couple of decades back with a shortage of bodies because the baby boomers had all graduated, began marketing themselves to adults--senior citizens, working people, people who had families and could not cope with a full-time schedule.

Now, what started out as marketing techniques--expanding the hours in which courses are offered and holding classes off campus--may be all that is keeping public colleges and universities from becoming completely oversubscribed. Working students are signing up to get business degrees or dental hygiene training not only during university off-hours but also at malls, tech centers, cyberspace and everywhere else that may be more convenient--and keeps rush hour under control in the quad.

At Central Georgia, classes and labs open at 8 in the morning and don't shut down until 10:30 at night. The school opened a satellite campus in Milledgeville four years ago, but it was nearly full to capacity on its opening day and a fleet of mobile classrooms quickly had to be brought on line. Fifteen miles down the road, Middle Georgia Technical College has outgrown an 83-acre, 163,000-square-foot campus that opened just three years ago. At one time, these schools had hopes that they could simply build their way out of the crunch; now, they know that won't happen.

The state of Georgia as a whole spent some $300 million over the course of the 1990s adding to its public campus infrastructure, but that was only about enough to keep up. "We definitely need bricks and mortar, but we also have to be a little more creative in what we do" to accommodate students, says April Moore, Central Georgia's director of institutional advancement. "We've got to be more creative because we can't count on construction money forever."

Indeed, some legislatures are turning out to be downright stingy with construction money just at the moment when the demand for public facilities is soaring. This past March, in part to fulfill his promises of a continuing tax cut, Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore ordered the state's public colleges to suspend $190 million worth of construction, not only disrupting future building plans but halting projects that were already under way. With Virginia expecting an increase of 10 percent in the number of its undergraduates over the next decade, the freeze on college construction and salaries has become an issue in this year's gubernatorial election. "Our state won't be educating the number of people it needs to in our colleges and universities," says Don Finley, executive director of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council. "When students show up to enroll, they will be turned away. It's that simple."

Neighboring North Carolina this year has been considering a reduction of $125 million from public college operating budgets--an amount larger than the entire budgets of most of the individual schools in the state. The only reason North Carolina colleges are likely to survive the next few years virtually intact is the $3.1 billion bond measure that voters approved last fall.

California is in much the same position, but with many more dollars involved. The state's colleges and universities have long counted on billion-dollar bond measures winning voter approval every four or five years. The last bond issue, four years ago, raised $2 billion. A much more ambitious $10 billion issue, which would contribute $4 billion to higher education and allot the remainder to K-12, will likely go on the ballot next spring. Without it, California's chances of coping with the projected undergraduate onslaught of the next decade may be rather bleak.

California officials have taken to calling their current crop of college entrants "Tidal Wave II," a sequel to the demographic demands so famously brought on by the original baby boom in the 1960s. Already home to 2.1 million undergraduates, the state will have close to 3 million by the end of the decade. Even if the bond money materializes, online courses and joint use of physical plants may be the only sufficient pressure valve available to colleges and universities faced with a continuing enrollment boom.

"There's no way we could build buildings fast enough to accommodate the growth," says Ken Swisher, of the California State University system. In addition to promoting the type of off-campus programs popular in other states, California this year made its first serious push to encourage students to take summer courses, shelling out $36 million to subsidize student fees. Units of study used to cost students twice as much during the summer, but now are roughly equal to spring and fall rates. As a result, almost every campus is operating year-round and summer attendance is up about 50 percent.

In New York, participation in the State University of New York Learning Network has doubled in the past year. Colleges nationwide are stepping up their certification programs, allowing students to find work in hospitality or information technology quickly, without taking a full load of degree courses. Maryland is putting college "centers" in shopping malls and in the underserved Eastern Shore. California is pushing more students to take advanced placement classes, earning them cheap college credits (cheap for the state) before they graduate from high school. Arizona is looking at allowing its community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees. This past year, Florida dipped its toe into just those waters, allowing St. Petersburg College to grant four-year degrees.

Four-year institutions, in turn, are working more closely with community colleges, in effect sharing students and trying to get them to take courses wherever there's an available spot. Community colleges may be keeping laboratories open day and night, but if there's a free hour, the university down the road often wants to fill it. Other schools, meanwhile, are in effect merging campuses. Students who take their first couple of years worth of courses at Broward Community College, for instance, can go on to matriculate at Florida Atlantic University, at the same locale.

The pressures of supply and demand may be most acute at the elite public universities, the state-run name-brand schools whose diplomas are seen as the surest tickets to success. In many states, the flagships are scrambling to accommodate overflows. Like many other schools, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst had hundreds more students follow up on their acceptance letters this spring than had been expected. The class this year will be about 15 percent larger than what the university wanted.

The University of Washington at Seattle has 10 percent more students this fall than last, growth for which the legislature has provided no additional funding. To make room, almost all of the campus'"double" dorm rooms have been converted into triples. The university has also doubled the size of its "early fall start" program, in which about 300 students arrive five weeks ahead of their peers to take intensive courses prior to the start of the regular fall quarter. Administrators hope they will then take one less course during the quarter, freeing up space.

And while the best students in California are clamoring to get into Berkeley and UCLA, fewer and fewer of them, on a percentage basis, are going to be let in. The University of California system's two flagships are planning to grow in undergraduate enrollment at a rate just above 1 percent annually over the coming decade. By contrast, less prestigious campuses will be enlarging themselves dramatically. UC Riverside will more than double its student population, while the campus at Irvine will grow by 76 percent, and Santa Cruz by 62 percent.

In Wisconsin, the state university's main Madison campus plans to keep its enrollment levels steady in the coming years, even though freshman applications were up by about 3,000 this year alone. Penn State, which bulked up to accommodate enrollment increases a generation ago, is now keeping its head count about the same while directing students to the system's two dozen other campuses, some of which have converted from being two-year colleges into four-year programs.

"We are turning down students that we would have readily accepted a couple of years ago," says Robert McMath, vice provost for undergraduate studies at Georgia Tech, a school that has limited its enrollment growth to one-third over the past four years. More and more of the state's best students, who in years past might have opted for the Ivy League, are now eager to attend a public university. The state's pioneer HOPE Scholarship program makes higher education essentially free for B-average high school students who matriculate in state, at a cost to the state in the current fiscal year of $280 million.

But decisions by the best students to attend Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia only create a tighter fit at already cramped community and technical colleges. Attendance at Griffin Technical College, just outside the greater Atlanta area, has doubled over the past three years. Griffin Tech has not yet witnessed its students camping out overnight to get into classes, but there's already a two- year waiting list for the school's X-ray technology program. "We enjoy the growth," says Griffin Tech President Coy Hodges, "but at some point we're going to have to level off."