By Tom Allison and Susan Hankins
A first look at the Early Enrollment Estimates for Virginia’s colleges and universities shows that the overall number of college students has remained stable, with a total of 525,000 students enrolled in college this fall. That number is virtually unchanged from fall of 2019 (before the COVID-19 pandemic). The details, as usual, are more complicated.
Total enrollment – undergraduate, graduate and first professional – at public and private nonprofit colleges and universities has remained virtually unchanged since fall 2019. Total enrollment varied by fewer than 575 students, or 0.03%. A detailed look at these initial data can be explored at SCHEV’s Early Enrollment Estimates report. The report allows the user to delineate by institution, gender and enrollment intensity. A second report compares the early enrollment estimates with the actual enrollment for previous years.
Enrollment varied by sector:
- Public four-year colleges and universities’ enrollment estimates fell by 1.3% from 2019. This fall, their estimated total enrollment is 220,586.
- Enrollment at two-year public colleges declined 4.2% from 2019, with a total fall 2021 enrollment estimate of 153,673. This is a slight increase, however, from 2020.
- Private non-profit four-year colleges and universities’ enrollment increased by 6.9% from 2019, with a current estimated enrollment of 151,255 students. Much of this growth is attributable to Liberty University.
The number of undergraduate students declined by 2.2% from 2019.
- Undergraduate enrollment estimates for the public four-year colleges and universities fell by 2.1% from 2019 to 2021, with a current estimated enrollment of 171,592 students.
- Ten of the state’s 15 public four-year colleges and universities saw a drop in fall 2021 enrollment estimates, compared to 2019. Only five institutions increased their enrollment from fall 2019 to 2021: George Mason University, James Madison University, University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and William and Mary. At 3.9%, William and Mary’s increase was the largest; the other four institutions’ increases were less than 2% each.
- The institutions with the largest estimated declines in undergraduate enrollment for fall 2021 are Radford University (18.6%), University of Virginia’s College at Wise (16.8%), University of Mary Washington (12.5%), Virginia State University (9.4%), Longwood University (8.7%), and Christopher Newport University (7.5%).
- Virginia’s private four-year colleges and universities saw an enrollment increase of 1.8% from fall 2019 to fall 2021, to 87,032 undergraduates.
As stated above, Liberty University’s enrollment has an outsized influence on this sector’s enrollment numbers. These data do not indicate whether students are enrolled exclusively online, in face-to-face courses, or in a hybrid setting.
A Bright Spot
In 2020, roughly 1,000 fewer out-of-state students enrolled in Virginia public institutions, compared to 2019. It is likely concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic dissuaded out-of-state students from moving to Virginia for college. Generally, those out-of-state students appear to have returned in 2021. From 2020 to 2021, the public two-year colleges registered the highest increase in out-of-state students, a 23.5% rise. At the four-year public colleges and universities, out-of-state enrollment grew 1.8% between 2020 to 2021. Longwood led the way with a 15.8% increase in out-of-state students, which comes entirely from the university’s graduate enrollment.
University of Virginia’s College at Wise also saw a double-digit increase in out-of-state enrollment of 11.0%, and Virginia Tech had an 8.7% increase. William and Mary, at 7.1%, and Norfolk State, at 7.0%, also reported a sizeable increase in enrollments.
These estimates are preliminary and are subject to change before final reports arrive later in the year. At this point, no systematic enrollment crisis has materialized for Virginia’s colleges and universities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, individual institutions and sectors have been impacted differently, and no one knows the pandemic’s future course or its effect on higher education. It is reassuring that out-of-state students might be returning.
In addition to the pandemic, the decreases in enrollment seen at a good number of the public colleges and universities could be part of long-term trends, such as more students being allured out-of-state or a stagnation in the number of high school graduates. Also, unfettered growth may not be strategically aligned with institutional or state objectives. Perhaps some institutions are right-sizing rather than down-sizing.