Virginia colleges and universities see drop in enrollment, but far less than initially anticipated

Virginia colleges and universities see drop in enrollment, but far less than initially anticipated
The Rotunda at the University of Virginia. (Source: Style Weekly)

Early headcounts from Virginia’s colleges and universities show an overall 1.3 percent decline in student enrollment this fall — a total of 6,658 students, according to a new report from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Spokeswoman Laura Osberger said it was the first time that SCHEV publicly announced the preliminary estimates, which can change between November and early January as four-year and community colleges submit official student records. But the announcement came after months of uncertainty for higher education amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with some analysts predicting a 20 percent drop in enrollment earlier this year.

“One of the reasons we came out with this information is because this year is different than other years,” Osberger added. “We sort of took a risk by releasing it, but we did so because it’s not as bad as everyone predicted.”

Overall, much of the decline was driven by enrollment in two-year community colleges, which dropped by 9.7 percent compared to 2019. Enrollment at public four-year colleges and universities declined by 0.2 percent.

Those decreases were at least partially offset by enrollment at private four-year schools, which actually went up by 6.6 percent. But Tod Massa, SCHEV’s director of policy analytics, said the increased enrollment was almost entirely driven by new students at Liberty University — an evangelical college based in Lynchburg with an established online degree program.

Liberty’s total headcount increased by nearly 12 percent this fall, including more than 9,500 new out-of-state students — most of whom likely enrolled virtually, Massa added.

“The thing is that Liberty is a known player in distance education,” he said. “And when everybody went remote, there’s probably a subset of students who said, ‘Hey, this place has been doing it all along.’” Without the increases in Liberty’s student population, four-year colleges across Virginia would have seen a slight overall decline in enrollment.

Massa also emphasized that the preliminary estimates don’t provide much demographic detail about the changes. Until SCHEV receives official records from schools across Virginia, it can’t provide a breakdown of how attendance has changed among first-generation students or Pell Grant recipients, for example, or whether enrollment declined more among men or women.

There are already some early indicators that the pandemic is changing student behavior in unprecedented ways. Massa said that community college enrollment usually rises with the unemployment rate as more people use economic downturns to develop new skills or transition to other industries.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.