The pandemic didn’t hurt enrollment at most of Va.’s four-year universities. Not so for community colleges.

The pandemic didn’t hurt enrollment at most of Va.’s four-year universities. Not so for community colleges.
The Rotunda at the University of Virginia. (Source: Style Weekly)

Virginia’s colleges and universities weathered the COVID-19 pandemic without a significant loss in enrollment, according to a new analysis from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. However, the report did flag a major drop in community college attendance.

“Big picture, Virginia colleges dodged a bullet,” said Tom Allison, SCHEV’s senior associate for finance policy and innovation. While national data showed an overall 2.5 percent drop in students, SCHEV found that enrollment across the state’s institutions of higher education was largely unchanged in the fall of 2020 compared to the previous years.

“We’ve got charts that show a decline of 0.1 percent, which is really just a blip,” Allison said. “That’s good news. What it means is that students are continuing their education. And on the institutional front, it means — for the most part — those institutions have tuition revenue to help balance their books.”

SCHEV’s final analysis, published this week, uses official student records submitted by the state’s four-year and community colleges. The organization also published a preliminary report in September that estimated a 1.3 decline in enrollment — far less than the 20 percent drop predicted by some experts at the start of the pandemic.

“We sort of took a risk by releasing it, but we did so because it’s not as bad as everyone predicted,” SCHEV spokeswoman Laura Osberger said of the early analysis. That the final report showed an even smaller drop in enrollment was a relief to many of the state’s colleges and universities, which spent much of last spring worried about a potential decline in the incoming freshman class.

While SCHEV described the statewide data as a “promising” sign for Virginia schools, institution-level enrollment numbers raised larger concerns over inequities in attendance. While seven of Virginia’s public colleges grew their total enrollment in the fall of 2020 compared to the previous year — including a 777-student jump at George Mason University — eight lost students.

One of the most significant enrollment declines was at Radford University, which lost a total of 1,175 students. Allison said the dip was mostly due to the phase-out of a federally funded competency-based education program and didn’t represent a major drop in traditional undergraduate students.

Other drops were more worrying, including a loss of enrollment at Norfolk State University and Virginia State University — two public historically Black colleges.

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