Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke. Courtesy of the school.

Grab a shovel. We’re going to dig deeper.

As I’ve written before, perhaps the most substantive thing Gov. Glenn Youngkin has done so far has been to derail the impending appointment of former Secretary of Education Anne Holton as chancellor of the state community college system. Youngkin wanted the community college board to restart its search but the board effectively told Youngkin to buzz off; it appointed a new chancellor the very next day, naming Russell Kavalhuna, president of Henry Ford College in Michigan.

All this matters for several reasons. First, Virginia’s community college chancellors have a tendency to serve for a long time. The current chancellor, Glenn DuBois, has served for 21 years. The average tenure of a Virginia community college chancellor is 9.2 years, so more than twice the four years in office that Youngkin will get. So this is kind of an important hire.

The reason it’s important is that Virginia’s community college system enrolls nearly four times as many students (144,215 in fall 2021) as either George Mason University (39,142) or Virginia Tech (37,279), the state’s two biggest public four-year schools. In fact, it’s bigger than the four biggest public four-years put together: George Mason, Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia. You could add in Radford University, Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and the community college system would still be bigger. The single biggest public college in the state is none of them: It’s Northern Virginia Community College, with 49,559 students. In terms of sheer weight, the community college system gets far less attention than it deserves.

Youngkin, though, is giving the system some attention. Whether it’s the right attention (he wants to make sure the board makes the best decision) or the wrong attention (he was unhappy because the wife of a Democratic senator might have gotten the job) may be a matter of political taste, but for my purposes here today, I’m content to go with Youngkin’s stated reasons: He sees lots of unfilled jobs in the state. He also sees community college enrollment declining. If you came into office, like he did, promising a “rip-roaring economy,” it’s only natural to think that the community college system is letting you down when it comes to job training.

The problem with that is one of context. Community college enrollment is declining nationally, not just in Virginia. One of the big problems is simply demography: There are fewer potential students in the age cohorts most likely to go to school. It’s hard to enroll people who aren’t there. That means Virginia’s enrollment decline isn’t unique, so it can’t be turned around simply by a governor (figuratively) banging his fist on the desk and demanding better results. (If you want all those numbers, see my previous columns on the subject – here and here.)

Now, shovel in hand, let’s dig deeper. Knowing that community college enrollment is declining nationwide is useful but doesn’t tell us all we need to know. What we really need to know is how Virginia is doing relative to other states. Is it losing enrollment at a slower or faster rate than other states? Are there any states that are defying these enrollment trends? If so, what can we learn from them?

When I was growing up on a farm in Rockingham County, one of my least favorite jobs was to help dig holes for fence posts. You never knew when you were going to hit rock just under the surface. I remember one particularly sweltering summer when the ground was so hard and dry that the post hole digger just kept spinning ’round and ’round until the metal augur started smoking. That was probably the moment that crystallized for me that I was not cut out to be a farmer. I liked the idea of indoor work and no heavy lifting. Unfortunately, trying to come up with the right set of statistics to compare community college enrollment state by state is a lot like digging holes for fence posts. There’s a lot of rock and hardpan.

Different states operate their systems in different ways and count students in different ways. There’s headcount (the total number of students) versus full-time equivalents (because many of those students might be part-time). There are traditional academic students, then there are workforce credentials students (who might be going for a few weeks to get certified in a particular skill) and continuing education students (somebody who might take a single class) and, well, there are lots of classifications. All those are valid numbers, but the trick is comparing the same numbers state by state.

Some states also draw a distinction between community colleges (academic programs) and technical colleges (for those credentials programs). Tennessee operates two separate systems; Virginia has all those programs under one umbrella. When we look at Tennessee’s numbers, we see that its academic community college enrollment is dropping but its enrollment in technical colleges is growing. Combine them, though, and the numbers are still dropping.

My point here is that there are lots of numbers available, and we must be cautious about which ones we use and how, lest we wind up measuring the wrong things. Using one definition of who community college students are, North Carolina says its enrollment is growing. Using another, its enrollment is dropping. Both are right, but which one is best for our purposes? It’s enough to make you question the concept of federalism!

In the end, I’ve gone with the numbers compiled by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a Northern Virginia-based nonprofit that works with colleges and universities on data issues and which has the added benefit of being widely quoted as an authoritative source. Its numbers refer to “public two-year” institutions, which would cover community colleges, but also sometimes other institutions. For instance, in Virginia, that definition would bring in Richard Bland College, a public two-year college in Prince George County that is affiliated with the College of William & Mary. For the purpose of getting consistent data across all 50 states, that’s a definition I’m willing to accept.

So, let’s first look at enrollment from fall 2020 to 2021. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia says during that period community college enrollment went down by 4.3%. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows Virginia’s enrollment down by 6.6%. Different definitions of what constitutes a student. That’s why for the numbers I’m about to present, I wouldn’t hang too much on the specific numbers; I’d focus more on what they say directionally.

Anyway, here are the 10 states that from fall 2020 to fall 2021 lost the most enrollment:

  1. Washington -16.9%
  2. Maine -16.4%
  3. Mississippi -14.8%
  4. Oregon -14.4%
  5. Pennsylvania -13.1%
  6. South Dakota -12.7%
  7. California -9.9%
  8. Maryland -9.7%
  9. Hawaii -8.5%
  10. Wyoming -7.5%

Whether Virginia’s enrollment decline was -4.3% or -6.6%, it’s not in the top 10 (or bottom 10, depending on how you count things). Using that -6.6% figure, Virginia is tied for 13th with Idaho, New Mexico, Ohio and Oklahoma. So while Virginia isn’t as bad off as Washington or Maine, it’s still closer to the bottom than the top. In other words, most states did a better job of getting community college students back into the classroom. That’s important to know.

Only eight states saw community college enrollment grow from fall 2020 to fall 2021, and a ninth saw enrollment stay even.

  1. Michigan 19.1%
  2. Arkansas 9.4%
  3. Montana 8.7%
  4. Alabama 6.7%
  5. Florida 5.9%
  6. Utah 3.8%
  7. Texas 2.1%
  8. Tennessee 2.0%
  9. Louisiana 0.0%

Notice Michigan’s showing; twice as good as the second-best state. Also note that Virginia’s new chancellor is coming from a Michigan community college. Youngkin ought to like that; maybe the new guy has some on-the-ground insights about how Michigan’s community college enrollment has rebounded so strongly.

Of course, looking just at enrollment trends from 2020 to 2021 doesn’t tell the whole story. Virginia’s community college enrollment has been declining since 2011; it’s been declining nationally since 2010. We really need to ask how well Virginia has been doing relative to other states since then.

Here’s where we once again run into the limitations of the data. The best I can do is rustle up data (again, through the National Student Research Clearinghouse) back to 2019. (That’s as far back as the clearinghouse says it has the data organized that way.) At least that gives us a year before the pandemic. Measuring enrollment from 2019 to 2021 is better than just looking at 2020 to 2021.

Here’s what we see: Over that two-year period, every state saw its community college enrollment drop, except one. That one was Utah, where enrollment grew from 32,544 to 33,949 – an increase of 4.3%. (More on Utah to come).

Over that time, the clearinghouse shows Virginia’s enrollment dropped by 10%. Some states, though, dropped by two to three times as much.

  1. West Virginia -29.6%.
  2. New York -26.7%
  3. Oregon -24.6%
  4. Ohio -23.8%
  5. Washington -23.3%
  6. Pennsylvania -23.1%
  7. Maine -22.4%
  8. California -20.5%
  9. Mississippi -19.8%
  10. Connecticut -19.2%

    Now let’s put Virginia in the context of its neighboring and nearby states, since those are the ones we’re most often competing with for jobs. The clearinghouse, using its definition of enrollment puts Virginia’s decline at -10.0%. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, using a different definition, puts it at -8.7%. Again, it’s the directional trends that matter most.
  1. West Virginia -29.6%
  2. Tennessee -18.8%
  3. Maryland -14.0%
  4. Florida -10.4%
  5. Georgia -10.3%
  6. Virginia -10.0%
  7. Alabama -8.7%
  8. North Carolina -7.8%
  9. South Carolina -6.6%
  10. Kentucky -4.5%

By that comparison, Virginia doesn’t seem unusual at all. North Carolina and South Carolina, two states that often turn up as rivals, are doing a smidge better, but they’re seeing their enrollment drop, too.

Virginia should still be concerned about declining community college enrollment, of course, but these figures show that Virginia is by no means unusual – and is actually doing better than a lot of places. Youngkin is said to like numbers. These are numbers he ought to pay attention to.

There are some other numbers he might want to study, too. There’s one part of Virginia’s community college system that is seeing enrollment go up. That’s the G3 program instituted by Ralph Northam when he was governor. The G3 program targets certain in-demand skills – mostly health care, early childhood education, information technology, public safety, skilled trades of various kinds – and aims to make those programs available to students for little or no cost. (The details are complicated but the goal is for the state to cover tuition, fees and books after other state and federal financial aid is accounted for, so it’s not exactly “free community college” but maybe sort of kind of is.) In any case, here’s the number that matters: Enrollment in these programs is up 9% from fall 2020 to fall 2021. Best of all, nearly half the G3 students are 25 or older, according to Roanoke’s WVTF-FM, so these are nontraditional students who are now upgrading their skills. If Youngkin wants to boost community college enrollment (and he should), then here’s something to grab hold of.

So what about Utah, the lone state that has seen community college enrollment rise from 2019 to 2021? Not even Utah officials say they know why. “I don’t believe one factor over another is driving enrollment growth in the state compared to other states,” the commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education told Salt Lake City’s KUER-FM last fall. But here’s surely one factor that makes a difference: Utah is the youngest state in the country, not by date of admission but by median age. Its median age is 31.5, compared to 38.2 for Virginia and 38.5 nationally – and 45.1 in Maine, our most geriatric state.

In other words, part of the reason why Utah’s community college enrollment is growing is the same reason why it’s dropping in Virginia: demographics.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.