Emory & Henry College. Photo courtesy of the school.

EMORY – In the coming years, motorists at Interstate 81’s Exit 26 in Southwest Virginia will seemingly travel through the campus of Emory & Henry College.

One side of the interstate exit will be a “first-class” equestrian center that will be home to the storied program that boasts national championships. The other side near the main campus will be anchored by a multi-sport athletic complex.

E&H owns the “four corners” of the interstate exit and college officials want to capitalize on the 1.4 million cars that drive through each month. They hope to tie it all together by splashing the blue and gold E&H banner across the interstate overpass.

The new equestrian center and sports complex were announced Feb. 4. Ten days earlier, college officials announced construction of a 36-apartment housing unit for upperclass students. The three projects are expected to total $35 million to $40 million, depending on materials costs and whether there are supply chain issues.

E&H, a 186-year-old private, liberal arts college in rural Washington County, is in the middle of a growth spurt that includes record enrollment numbers, new programs and a host of capital projects.

By the numbers

$35 million to $40 million – Estimated cost of housing unit, sports complex and equestrian center

$5 million – Expected cost of renovation for College of Business

1,356 – Total number of students enrolled in fall 2021

90 – The number of majors, minors and tracks

186 – Age of the college

300 – Number of students at the School of Health Sciences in Marion

And the success comes at a time when many colleges are struggling financially and scrambling for answers to the looming “enrollment cliff,” a significant decrease in enrollments for traditional college-age students resulting from a decline in birth rates that began with the recession of 2008. Though the cliff was expected in 2025, education officials say it has been hastened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

All the improvements at E&H are the result of years of planning and foresight, according to President John Wells. 

The additions and projects are occurring “at a moment when a lot of higher education is in disruption. Instead of sitting around and thinking about how it’s all going to play out or dreading it, we’re trying to be proactive,” said Wells.

In addition to the three construction projects, there have been a number of other changes and additions made recently or in the works, including: 

  • A $5 million renovation of Carriger Hall, which will house the college’s new School of Business.
  • Acceptance as a provisional member of Division II by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and joining the South Atlantic Conference for the 2022-23 academic year.
  • Opening in April of the Powell Student Success Center in the former Wiley Hall Auditorium.
  • A new bachelor of science in nursing degree, which earned accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education.

Projects and improvements

Equestrian Center

Multi-sport athletic complex

Housing building

Addition of School of Business for which a $5 million renovation is underway

New Student Success Center

Provisional member of Division II by National Collegiate Athletic Association

Joining the South Atlantic Conference

New bachelor of science in nursing degree

Generally speaking, such growth is not common these days among small, private colleges, said Lee Gardner, a senior writer who covers college sustainability and business models for The Chronicle of Higher Education, a Washington, D.C.-based newsroom that covers colleges and universities. 

“A lot of small, private colleges have been struggling lately, already before the pandemic because of demographic pressures.There are a lot fewer high school graduates likely to go to college in many parts of the country and that trend is expected to increase in coming years. So a lot of institutions likely already are having to compete for more serious students than they have in the past.”

Amenities are a big part of the current recruiting process, Gardner said.

He added that most small colleges also aren’t experiencing record enrollment. Last fall, E&H had its largest class of students, a total of 1,356, according to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. 

So, why is E&H thriving?

Wells said the school has a long history of going through flexible periods of “creative reinvention,” when it updates and makes itself more relevant. And the current growth is near the top of those times of growth, he said.

Emory & Henry College President John Wells. Courtesy of the school.

Though Wells is not an E&H graduate, his father was and his grandmother was a dorm mother at Hillman Hall on campus. As a child, he spent his summers in Southwest Virginia.

“It’s very personal to me, making certain that I’m honoring this legacy,” he said. “But I’m also committed to making sure Southwest Virginia has one of the best comprehensive institutions it can possibly have.”

The current administration is building on the leadership of past college officials, including former President Rosalind Reichard, whose vision led to the School of Health Sciences in Marion, which now has 300 students and four graduate programs, the president said. It was the decision of former President Jake Schrum to acquire the equestrian program of Virginia Intermont College when it closed.

“There’s been some really smart planning and we’re sort of standing on the shoulders of bright, innovative leaders who have been here,” he said, also crediting the board of trustees.

Ann Sluder, chair of the board of trustees, said the planning process began five years ago.

Total student enrollment

2021 – 1,356

2020 – 1,232

2019 – 1,298

2018 – 1,241

2017 – 1,228

2016 – 1,152

2015 – 1,114

2014 – 1,040

2013 – 960

2012 – 944

2011 – 974

Source: State Council of Higher Education for Virginia

“That process was informed in part by the anticipated enrollment cliff, but also guided by the college’s established strengths, by opportunities for flexible instruction models enabled by 21st century technology, and by areas of emerging opportunity and need in the world our graduates are entering. For the past 3+ years the college, under President Wells’ leadership, has been implementing the multiple parallel elements of resulting strategic plan, underpinning the growth we are now observing,” said Sluder, a 1981 E&H graduate who is associate director of the Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

College officials also say E&H has always been an integral part of Southwest Virginia in its nearly 200 years and its current growth and success will be important for the region’s future.

The school’s economic impact analysis is being updated and will be released soon. When it was last updated 10 years ago, it revealed that there was a $60 million annual economic impact on the region, according to Mark Graham, E&H’s vice president for administration and general counsel. That number is expected to significantly increase.

The formula takes into account the payroll and budget but doesn’t include intangibles such as how much students spend in the region, he added.

Graham is an E&H graduate as was his father and sister. Next fall, his son will be a student there. 

He said he recently stayed at The Bristol Hotel, which has a rooftop bar with a sweeping view of the Twin City’s downtown. From this perch, he said he was struck by sadness at the sight of the vacant Virginia Intermont College campus in one direction and the property that once housed Sullins College in the other.

Sullins, a two-year liberal arts college for women, closed in 1976. Virginia Intermont closed in 2014 amid financial struggles and declining enrollment.

“You see what happens if you’re not supporting these education institutions – they go away,” Graham said.

The equestrian center

The recently announced equestrian center will replace the current facility at Exit 10, which the college inherited when it took over the Virginia Intermont program in 2014.

The center will include indoor and outdoor competition areas, a warm-up facility, stalls for as many as 100 horses, offices, conference rooms, high-tech classrooms and multiple paddocks.

There is also room for growth on the property owned by the college.

College officials believe the new facilities will draw more students to the program, especially considering they had to cap enrollment last year due to the current space limitations.

It will also be less burdensome for equestrian students, who many days travel between the college and the current facility two or three times a day.

In addition, the center will allow the college to host more regional and possibly national competitions, according to college officials. A possible partnership for a therapeutic riding center is also being considered.      

Graham said the new facility will be more fitting for a program that, between the two schools, has won 21 national championships, which he added is “extraordinary in any sport.”

The equestrian center is now in the design phase, which is expected to take about a year. Construction should shart around March 1, 2023, with a completion date of 14-16 months. It is expected to be in use by the fall of 2024.

Athletic complex

The multi-sport athletic complex will be home to the college’s new track and field team, provide a second turf field with lighting to accommodate soccer and rugby, and possibly lacrosse in the future. The hope is the design will also attract more student athletes.

The announced project is the first phase, which will include seating for 800, parking for 300 vehicles, bathrooms, concessions and game day locker space. The estimated cost is $9 million.

The second phase, which will include sport specific locker rooms, coaches offices, a practice field and possibly baseball and softball fields, will be done later.

The sports complex will be in the design phase until mid-November and construction is expected to begin in January 2023. Completion is expected in March 2024 and it will be available for limited use that spring.

NCAA Division II

E&H officials are excited about the positives of being accepted as a provisional member of Division II by the NCAA and joining the South Atlantic Conference.

One benefit expected to boost enrollment is the ability to offer partial scholarships to athletes, which wasn’t allowed in Division III, Graham said.

It also places it  in a medium market and opens up new areas like Knoxville, Tennessee; Winston-Salem, Asheville and Charlotte in North Carolina; and Greenville, South Carolina, for recruitment of students, college officials say.

The move means E&H will play schools like the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, which school officials believe will draw more interest and attendance at games.

And rather than traveling up to six hours to games, teams will travel one to three hours, which will cut down on expenses and be easier for the athletes, Graham said.

Emory & Henry began the first of three provisional years last August and will be eligible for full membership in August 2024 if all requirements are met. 

College officials believe moving up to Division II is one of the initiatives that helped produce record enrollment for the fall 2021 semester, according to a news release.

Planned student apartments at Emory & Henry. Courtesy of the school.

Housing unit

To meet the needs of the increasing number of students, the college is building a housing unit for upperclass students that will have 36 apartments that will house 144. 

The three-story building will be constructed on 10 acres the college owns off College Drive and Hillman Highway, where there is space for more housing in the future.  

The apartments will have two bedrooms and accommodate four students. Each unit will be 1,200 square feet and feature two bathrooms, walk-in closets, and a private balcony or patio. As more housing is added, plans call for a clubhouse and outdoor pool.

Construction is expected to begin in April with substantial completion in December. It will be ready for occupancy in January 2023.

Paying for the projects

Ask E&H officials how they plan to pay for the improvements, and they say “philanthropy.” Because it isn’t a state institution, the school doesn’t get tax money for buildings, so the college depends on its alumni, supporters and friends to step up.

“As a private college, we have to ask a lot of our donors, our alumni, folks in the region that understand the impact the college has on the region,” Graham said. “It’s the oldest college in Southwest Virginia. There are a lot of friends of Emory & Henry out there.”

Of the capital projects, only the $5 million needed for the renovation of Carriager Hall for the School of Business has been raised.

President Wells said coming up with the money will be a “work in progress from a number of different approaches … philanthropy and managed debt.”

He added that although fundraising is already underway, a campaign will be announced and launched in October.

Beyond the current projects, Wells said E&H will continue evolving and adapting to meet the needs of students, the community and region. In addition to more housing, he said there will be improvements to the basketball facilities and some academic spaces.

“If students are going to choose to be in person and part of an academic community for four years, you’ve really got to give them a very good reason for that,” Wells said. “So, you have to really layer the excellence so they have excellence on every layer. Our motto is ‘Increase in Excellence’ and that’s what we’re trying to do so our students can increase in excellence as well.”

Susan Cameron has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee for nearly...