Students surged into a large auditorium at the University of California-Berkeley campus last week, filling all seats and sitting in aisles for a chance to hear the speaker.

This was no celebrity-studded special event, just the second day of class for Introduction to Economics, one of many overcrowded classes at UC this year. The lecture is officially closed, limited to 720 students. But an additional 150 came anyway, hopeful that their names might be plucked off the waiting list and added to the roster.

Discovering that the waiting list was full, many asked to be placed on the waiting list for the waiting list.

To understand the morning's lecture – the laws of supply and demand – the students simply needed to look around the room: too many kids and too few spaces.

This year's large UC class comes on top of a steady decadelong climb in the number of students that was already stretching the system at the seams. Analysts point to the state's young demographics, the rise in immigrants and the prestige – and financial bargain – of a UC degree education.

The baby “boomlet” is one factor; another is the increase in first-generation college applicants, as families recognize the importance of a degree.

Online applications make it easier for students to apply to many campuses and harder for the schools to anticipate exactly how many students will show up. To make matters worse, many students place multiple deposits, committing to several places at once.

A UC education, always prestigious, is increasingly recognized as one of the best values in higher education. The latest U.S. News and World Report school survey ranked UC-Berkeley first of all public universities. Yet UC, unlike private schools, can't turn applicants away – every student who meets its eligibility criteria must be accepted.

But UC's popularity comes at a price.

Last week at UC-Davis, extra furniture is being moved into dormitories to accommodate up to 1,000 extra students, as double rooms are converted to triples, and lounges into four-person rooms. Bathrooms will serve up to a dozen students, instead of the usual seven.

Accommodations are better at UC-Santa Cruz, where upperclassmen will be offered rooms at the University Inn, which offers complimentary continental breakfast, free high-speed Internet access, voice mail, HBO, in-room coffee, a heated pool and whirlpool spa.

While there are enough beds for freshmen at Berkeley, classes are packed. Professor Mark Kubinec, who teaches introductory chemistry, says he is constantly seeking new ways to engage what he calls “the 8 billion freshmen.”

“Ninety percent of the students, I never meet them,” Kubinec says. “The students I do meet, it's because they make the effort. If you take the initiative, the resources here are phenomenal. It is what you make of it.”

© 2006, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.