Hollins University. Courtesy of Hollins.

Ashley Browning, Hollins University’s vice president of enrollment management, grew up about 10 miles from the Roanoke campus. But when looking for colleges as a high school senior, she never considered the school right down the road. 

“It’s a small place but I just knew nothing about it,” she said. She returned to the area and received her master’s at Hollins, and her one regret about her undergraduate career is that she wished she knew about women’s colleges like Hollins and the benefits it offers its students. 

Ashley Browning. Courtesy of Hollins.

So last spring when the school was considering how to chart a sustainable path forward, she and colleagues came up with the idea for the HOPE Scholar Program, specifically for local young women this fall in the incoming class of 2022. President Mary Dana Hinton said the idea was one that stood out to her and one that shows “our commitment to young women here, in the Roanoke Valley.”

The HOPE Scholar Program, which stands for Hollins Opportunity for Promise through Education, exists to alleviate the hardship of affording private college tuition for students with financial need, said an official release about the program. 

HOPE scholars will attend Hollins full-time for four years with the cost of tuition fully covered, she said. Students admitted to Hollins for the fall of 2022 and who currently reside within 40 miles of the Roanoke campus are invited to apply. The application period to get a shot at tuition-free education lasts through Jan. 1, but it’s already caused a spike in local applications, according to Browning. 

Hollins President Mary Dana Hinton.

There have been 95 local applications so far, up from 63 at the same time last year. Of those, 57 have applied for the scholarship. And visits from local students have about doubled. They saw 103 compared to 47 year-over-year. 

To take advantage of the scholarship, applicants must 

  • successfully apply for admission to the university
  • complete the HOPE application 
  • submit FAFSA information

This is a one-year pilot to gauge the level of financial need in the community. She said they are considering making it permanent if interest is high enough, and if the need is there. Otherwise, local students would be supported by the other channels the school has for financial aid. 

Browning also said that in choosing participants, the university will give preference to applicants from families with household adjusted gross income of $50,000 or less. Tuition at Hollins is currently $39,360 a year. However, all students can receive financial aid of at least $24,000, and more if they are academically strong. About 815 students attend Hollins currently, and most of them receive financial aid of some sort, she said. The school spends about $21 million per year in financial aid, according to her estimate. 

The HOPE program, as a last-dollar scholarship program, will pay the remainder of the tuition bill left after financial aid, reducing the student’s tuition cost to zero. Hollins plans to contribute its own endowment money to make it all possible, Browning said, with the overall goal of positively impacting local young women, while also boosting enrollment.

It’s not the only major announcement Hollins made recently. In early December, the school announced it had received a $75 million gift from an anonymous alumna. That money goes into Hollins’ endowment, and Hinton said that means the school will be able to in perpetuity draw upon this gift to fund financial aid and scholarships. 

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An aerial view of Hollins University. Courtesy of Hollins.

LOCAL STUDENTS

That 40-mile radius of the school is the area in which it’s still possible to live off-campus and commute, making it more affordable to attend Hollins without the $15,000 expense of annual room and board. 

Hayley Poland, assistant superintendent equity and student services, said that Roanoke City Public Schools “are hopeful there will be an increase in the number of students receiving scholarship money from Hollins and other post-secondary schools.”

And anecdotally, she said they have had interest in this scholarship. 

“Local institutions are of interest to our students,” she said. “Financial assistance is extremely helpful for our students to stay local and attend a four-year college.”

Poland said affordability is typically one of the main factors for Roanoke students looking at college. Nationally, just over 60% of Americans have achieved “some college,” while in the Roanoke area 30% of residents have achieved that level of education, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 community survey. 

To boost that number, RCPS and other districts in the region build partnerships with local institutions to educate students about the wide range of options for post-secondary education. 

The College Community Access Program, or CCAP, at Virginia Western Community College is the most used option, and “we have a large number of students who choose to stay local after completing and graduating from VWCC.”

Amanda Mansfield, philanthropy director for the Virginia Western Community College Educational Foundation, oversees the CCAP, which started in 2008 as a partnership with Salem. 

“It’s provided a secure, cost-effective opportunity to enter the higher-education stream,” she said. “We want to show kids that ‘college is possible’ so we’re out there in third grade and middle school talking about this. This is an access program. It’s about getting into the door.”

The program provides tuition for up to three years immediately after high school graduation and serves Roanoke, Salem and the counties of Roanoke, Franklin, Craig and Botetourt. It’s funded 50-50 by localities and funding matches raised everywhere. Students must also provide nonprofit community service. Up to 45% of students entering the community college are coming in through CCAP and 80% of them hope to go on to a four-year program.

More than 90% achieve their goals at VWCC, Mansfield said. 

“It was one of the first promise aid programs in the state,” she said. “What’s unique about it is it’s truly an investment in the workforce development of our young people.”

Programs like this are popping up around the commonwealth, in communities that also want to prioritize job training, including Dabney S. Lancaster, Patrick & Henry, and New River community colleges.

Mansfield also described students as wise consumers, ones who want to see return on investment and are cautious about large upfront costs. 

That’s the issue private colleges have to deal with as they seek to raise enrollment. And private women’s colleges have to meet financial need while also competing with coed institutions that also offer small class sizes and experiences like the liberal arts. 

Browning said at Hollins they resist bifurcation between liberal arts and job preparation. 

“This kind of education is so valuable,” she said. “We know graduates are not staying in their first job long, and an education that teaches you how to think creatively and critically allows you to transfer those skills and successfully move up the career ladder while being engaged, active citizens.”

“It frees you to do what you want in the future, having those habits of mind.”

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The Hollins chapel and library. Courtesy of Hollins.

WOMENS COLLEGES, A DECLINING TREND

Women’s colleges face a particular set of economic pressures heading into 2022. As small, liberal arts schools, they compete against coed liberal arts schools and the move toward more practical job training. 

Just in the Roanoke area students can choose from community colleges with tuition assistance; Virginia Tech, which educates many more students; private schools Roanoke College and Ferrum College — and more. 

What sets Hollins apart from other local schools is its class size of about 12 for most courses, its commitment to women and its liberal arts focus, according to Browning. 

Browning has this conversation almost every day with families about why that’s beneficial. It’s not just about job preparation, though she said they work hard to place students in internships and jobs. It’s about the depth and breadth of education they can receive. 

“HOPE Scholars will receive all the rights and privileges available to a Hollins student, such as study abroad or internships. They are not restricted in any way.”

Hinton explained that a private women’s college is a good investment, based on their alumnae. While women’s colleges make up only 2% of college graduates in the U.S., 20% of Congress and 30% of Fortune 500 boards are made up of women who went to these schools. It’s clear: Women who attend these schools do well in their careers. 

And even though more women attend college than men, there is less demand for women’s colleges. Women made up 59.5% of college students, an all-time high, at the close of the 2020-21 academic year, according to nonprofit research group National Student Clearinghouse. 

But in an interview earlier this year with The Daily Beast about the decline of women’s colleges Michele Ozumba, a former director of the Women’s Colleges Coalition, said the single-sex model worked in the 1960s and ’70s, when women were shut out of elite institutions. But today, she said they have to compete against institutions that have greater capacity, or scholarships. 

As of 2021, there are about 35 women’s colleges left in the U.S., down from 230 in 1960, according to the WCC. Many of those 230 colleges have become coeducational institutions. But others have closed due to enrollment challenges.  

For example, Virginia’s all-women colleges once included Randolph-Macon, which became coed in 2007 and renamed Randolph College, and the University of Mary Washington, which went coed in 1970. 

But Hollins’ influx of cash puts in stark contrast to women’s colleges around the country, which are facing a reckoning. Just 70 miles away, Sweet Briar College was due to close in 2015 because of supposed financial constraints but for organized alumnae whose lawsuit and fundraising kept the doors open. (It’s since seen its endowment rise, its bond rating improve and enrollment rise since fall 2015.)

Hinton said what sets Hollins apart is its “stability,” through a strong endowment and successful alumni willing to continue pouring into that endowment. The school has educated multiple Pulitzer Prize winners, for example. 

And its growth mirrors growth at other women’s schools with name recognition and solid endowments. Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and Barnard College in New York all increased their enrollment between the 2014 and 2020 academic years, NCES data showed. Reports show all “three benefit from strong brand recognition, substantial endowments and strong donor bases.”

But more recently Mills College in California announced it would stop accepting students this fall and confer its final degrees in 2023. Its alumnae are positioning a similar challenge as Sweet Briar’s to the closure. In May, Judson College announced it will close. And South Carolina’s Converse College revealed it will become coed.

But while these colleges may seem exclusive, the WCC states that they can be bastions for nontraditional students. Women’s colleges, on average, enroll 13% more students of color and 11% more low-income students than similar coed schools. At Hollins that percentage grows to about a third of the undergraduate student body: 36% are low-income, 34% are first generation, and 30% identify as students of color.

And Hinton said enrollment has seen an increase in the past three years. 

“We’ve been working for decades on being more racially and ethnically diverse, to educate students with less access to education, and it’s working. Hope is an extension to that long-term commitment. It’s a statement of community to Roanoke Valley: We are a strong partner.”

Richard Lovegrove contributed to this report.

Lindley Estes

Lindley Estes is a reporter and editor originally from Southside's Lunenburg County, but now based in Fredericksburg, Va. She is an award-winning journalist, previously working for the Free Lance-Star,...