The rises and falls of one state’s college enrollments the past 3 years

Could Virginia's steady numbers be signs of improvement in higher education?

The outlook might not be the same in 49 other states, but Virginia’s higher education system did better than most during the COVID pandemic in keeping enrollments from falling off a cliff.

In fact, other than two-year institutions—which sustained massive losses from coast to coast—Virginia is expecting only slight setbacks at its four-year public colleges and universities while achieving 7.3% growth from its private non-profits. Given the slow recovery from COVID-19 and two major economic storms brewing (inflation and a potential recession), the latest report showing 2022 estimates is about as positive as could be expected in the state.

“While these early estimates are still preliminary, [the] report demonstrates that students continue to find value in pursuing postsecondary education at Virginia’s colleges and universities,” said Peter Blake, Director of its State Council of Higher Education.

One of the most significant results from the SCHEV study is highlighted in a bar graph showing the welcome steadiness of two-year colleges and the potential to keep enrollments level this year compared with last. The latest number is significant given the massive losses sustained years prior in Virginia and nationwide during the pandemic. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center had reported community college enrollments plunged an additional 11% year over year during the spring.

The higher education council believes full-time enrollment (graduate and ungrad students combined) will jumped 2.5% this year, helped by the return of more men and out-of-state students, two areas where the industry has struggled to regain footing. It expects to lose about 3% of its part-timers, but says it is likely to hold steady on the number of in-state students. It also says there has been a massive transition, likely from full remote learning to in-person, in the number of students working off campus to those who have returned.

More from UB: Enrollment kick: The surprising factors behind one university’s 30% enrollment increase this fall

In and among three sectors—public, privates and community colleges—there expect to be wide-ranging results for individual institutions, from the sublime to the downright dreadful. William & Mary is the far-and-away leader in recovery at +9.4%, followed by Historically Black Virginia State University (+8%) and Virginia Tech University (+5.1%). The prominent George Mason, University of Virginia and James Madison also should see increases when final numbers are tallied.

The biggest outlier is Radford University, which could see a 34% drop, which SCHEV leaders attributed to “a competency-based education contract that expired in 2020.” The University of Virginia-Wise, Richard Bland College and the University of Mary Washington are all projected to continue seeing double-digit declines. Three esteemed institutions also could have big setbacks: the Virginia Military Institute (-9.1%), Virginia Commonwealth University (-5.6%) and Old Dominion University (-2.5%).

Institutions of higher education should know more soon nationally from the Clearinghouse (it released its first report on enrollments, with half of institutions reporting in late October) on how well they’ve collectively rebounded from the first two-plus years of the pandemic.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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