Since the pandemic began, college enrollments have plummeted across the country. But in Virginia, student numbers are recovering.
National college enrollment is down another 1% this year and 6% since before the pandemic, according to newly released data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Due to high tuition fees and a cheap job market, fewer people choose to go to college.
But in Virginia, student enrollment grew less than 1% this year to about 519,000, according to the State Council on Higher Education for Virginia. Reasons for the state’s relative success include the affluence of its residents, a still-growing high school-age population, and the continued emergence of online giant Liberty University in Lynchburg. Virginia is one of 16 states showing growth this year.
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SCHEV’s Tom Allison called Virginia’s 0.3 percent enrollment growth a “stabilization.”
“We have excellent institutions that people clearly see value in and worth investing time and money in,” Allison said.
No Virginia college has grown more over the past three years than Liberty, which grew its enrollment by 16% to over 99,000 students. The vast majority of Liberty students participate online.
Even the wealthiest and most prestigious schools in the state have done well. The College of William & Mary grew 9%, Virginia Tech grew 5%, and the University of Virginia grew 2%.
Most historically black universities are also thriving. Virginia State University is up 8% and Virginia Union University is up 17%. Even Virginia community colleges, which have been in decline for 10 years, are up almost 1% this year.
One reason Virginia colleges are doing better than most states is that they never fell that far to begin with. Colleges in the state experienced a 1% decline in 2020, averting disaster.
Virginia residents are relatively affluent and economically less affected by the pandemic than other states, Allison said.
While other states have seen the number of high school-age residents decline, Virginia is still growing. In 2020, Virginia had 87,000 high school seniors, the highest number ever.
The fact that Virginia’s colleges operate independently probably helped, too, Allison said. Every college in Virginia is headed by a president who reports to a visitors’ committee.
Each school could create its own pandemic response plan. Virginia State University kept its campus closed while most other colleges reopened. Other states such as North Carolina and California operate their universities as a single system.
Most states haven’t stabilized like Virginia.
“After two straight years of historically high losses, it’s particularly worrying that the numbers are still falling, particularly among freshmen,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the Clearinghouse.
While college enrollment has been declining statewide, Virginia college enrollment has been increasing.
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The implications of fewer college graduates are numerous: college graduates earn higher wages and are more likely to have health insurance. They are more likely to vote and volunteer and are less likely to depend on public support.
Some of Virginia’s trends can also be seen at the national level. The most selective schools continue to grow, while many for low-income students are shrinking.
While Virginia as a whole is staying afloat, some of its schools are struggling. Radford University has lost 35% of its students since 2019. The University of Mary Washington is down 16% and Virginia Commonwealth University is down 6%.
Of the 29 private schools in the state, 19 have signed contracts in the past three years. Hampton University lost 33% of its students, Ferrum College 23% and Bridgewater College 19%.
Historically, black colleges and universities across the state have done well this year, growing nearly 3%. Virginia State, Virginia Union and Norfolk State are up, but Hampton University is down.
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At VSU, the school welcomed 1,700 freshmen and new transfers this year, the largest group of new students in more than 30 years. The number of students has increased by 8% to 4,700 since the pandemic.
Donald Palm, the Provost of VSU, said the murder of George Floyd made students more interested in social justice and more likely to consider an HBCU.
Alumni are a big part of the university’s growth, he added. Alumni provide testimonials that are more valuable than any school employee interview. Alumni often connect prospective students with the admissions office, they invite VSU to corporate events, and they recently shared a flyer on Facebook where one former student wrote, “Virginia State University is the best decision I’ve ever made.”
“They’re built for it,” Palm said of the school’s alumni. “They take pride in recruiting students and working with the university to recruit students.”
Another mechanism that brings students to Virginia State is the Virginia College Affordability Network, a state-sponsored program that allows Pell-eligible students growing up in the Chesterfield and Petersburg areas to attend at no cost.
Since the start of the program in 2021, it has brought around 500 students to the VSU. For those who pay, VSU is one of the most affordable public universities in Virginia. Tuition, fees, and room and board in the state cost approximately $21,000 per year.
VSU hasn’t set a target for future enrollment, Palm said, but 6,000 to 7,000 students is a possibility.
The question for the state is: will it continue to grow?
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The number of high school graduates is expected to decrease from 2026 onwards. It’s been called an “enrollment cliff,” but what Virginia will see is actually a steady decline.
Between 2026 and 2036, the number of high school graduates is expected to fall by 10%, reflecting fewer births during the 2007 recession.
The universities are already preparing for this. William & Mary President Katherine Rowe told faculty this month that the university has four years to position itself for 2026.
“The actions we take now will determine our future competitiveness – our ability to attract excellent students,” she said.
The question of how the enrollment cliff will affect schools is of great importance. Fewer students often mean budget bottlenecks, fewer employees and strained resources.
The potential drop is “a threat to that stabilization,” Allison said.
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