Construction is underway on housing at Southwest Virginia Community College. Courtesy of the school.

It seems appropriate that Tommy Wright would be the first community college president in Virginia to build housing for students.

He has 25 years of experience in student housing, first as an undergraduate at Middle Tennessee State University, where Wright was a resident adviser responsible for a floor of students.

Through graduate school, he worked his way up to hall director and coordinator roles responsible for an increasing number of students.

Map by Robert Lunsford.

For his doctoral degree, he wrote his dissertation on student housing.

And when he landed a job at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, he was assistant director of housing before being promoted to director of housing.

In 2018, Wright was named president of Southwest Virginia Community College in Richlands, where site work is underway for the school’s first housing building. The unit is being built across from the main campus on 25 acres of land owned by the college’s Educational Foundation, which is its fundraising arm.

About the project

$3.5 million loan approved for the first two apartment buildings

Two more housing buildings may be added, if needed

Site work is underway for first, with construction expected soon

The units are being built across from the main campus

Rent is expected to be $600, which includes utilities, internet and trash pickup

The foundation board approved a loan up to $3.5 million for two buildings, with the option to increase that amount to fund a total of four housing buildings, if needed.

“I think placing the student housing, where they can be among their peers, across the street from the campus, and not having to have additional transportation, allows us to continue to recruit more students and it will reduce their costs,” Wright said. “There’s no better predictor of graduating than living on campus and being among your peers. The research is crystal clear on that.”

Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System, attended the Feb. 8 groundbreaking ceremony for the housing unit. He said he is a “big supporter with stipulations. One, it really depends upon what goals they’re trying to achieve and also depends upon if they’re really fully aware of … the risks.”

Those potential risks include student drinking, for which there needs to be a zero-tolerance policy, the chancellor said.

“If we’re recruiting students to stay with us, I think we have to assume responsibility to make sure they’re safe,” he said, adding that he has a lot of confidence in Wright, who used to manage residential halls and understands the risks involved.

He added that community colleges must stay “relevant,” and housing is a solution for Southwest because it has made recruiting athletes, out-of-state and international students a priority.

While there is no other housing at community colleges in Virginia, DuBois noted that it has been done successfully at a number of community colleges across the country.

* * *

The “quandary”

Adding student housing is just one initiative Wright has undertaken to attract students during a time when it has become increasingly difficult for most colleges to do.

Enrollment numbers

2010 – 3,755

2011 – 3,233

2012 – 2,766

2013 — 2,630

2014 – 2,546

2015 – 2,563

2016 – 2,481

2017 — 2,304

2018 – 2,373

2019 – 2,338

2020 – 2,295

2021 – 2,135

Source: State Council of Higher Education for Virginia

Colleges are competing for a shrinking number of high school graduates that go on to college and that is expected to worsen with the coming “enrollment cliff,” a serious decrease in enrollments for traditional college-age students. The lower numbers are the result of a decline in birth rates that began with the recession of 2008, according to education officials.

In addition, Southwest is impacted by an ongoing population decline in Southwest Virginia.

Like most community colleges in Virginia, the school has seen a steady decrease in enrollment since 2010, when it had a total of 3,755 students, according to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Last fall, Southwest had a total enrollment of 2,135 students.

So, when Wright became president of the college, he was looking for ways to reverse that trend and solve what he called “sort of a quandary.”

“How do we reverse that when we are already number one in our recruitment as a percentage compared to our peers of our high schools (students) and we marry that with a population decline in Southwest? So, from my perspective we had to … get more people. We had to get a bigger pond to fish in.”

Over the four years of his presidency, Wright started several programs aimed at attracting all prospective students, not just those considered traditional community college pupils.

One of the first was to work with the counties the college serves to offer free tuition to all high school graduates in those counties. The college, which opened in 1968, serves the counties of Buchanan, Russell and Tazewell and a portion of Dickenson County.

Under the program, students fill out federal and state financial aid applications and the counties pick up what’s not covered.

Wright also started an honors program designed to help recruit the region’s best and brightest students.

And for the first time, the college began offering athletics, with 14 men’s and women’s programs beginning in the fall of 2019. The school is now a member of the National Junior College Athletics Association.

All athletics were suspended in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so this school year is the first full year of athletic competition.

The athletics programs allow the school to recruit from a broader area and it’s bringing in students from other states and countries that wouldn’t have come otherwise, and they need housing, Wright said.

* * *

Great Expectations

Per capita, Southwest Virginia has the highest percentage of students who have been in the foster care system in the state, according to Susan Lowe, Southwest’s vice president of institutional advancement and executive director of the Educational Foundation.

She said there is a “staggering population” of these students.

As these students turn 18, they age out of the foster care system and often have nowhere to go, according to Lowe.

Many of these students are members of a statewide program called Great Expectations, which helps them get into a community college and transition to living independently.

One of their greatest needs is housing, Wright said.

Sometimes, the foster parents no longer want to provide the students with housing, “so there’s an opportunity for us to assist our foster care participants now with housing options. … ,” he said.

Andrea Laney, a 20-year-old student from Tazewell, is a member of the Great Expectations program.

She said student housing will be an “amazing opportunity” for students in the program.

“I think it is needed because many students don’t have a stable home life, and they often seek out apartments/housing on their own,” she said. “Many hurdles come with this for students, such as limited apartments in our rural area and students struggling to balance work with classes. When I started college, I was living on my own and worked the night shift at a nursing home. I missed many classes during the day because it was very hard for me to wake up after working the night before. I think many students at Southwest struggle with similar situations. The student housing will allow students affordable housing that will allow them the opportunity to work less, and they will be able to focus on their classes and homework.”

She pointed to a report by the organization FosterVA, which states that only 3% to 4% of Virginia foster youth who age out will earn a college degree, and 1 in 5 will be homeless after turning 18.

“I think that being able to live close to campus will provide the support and security that Great Expectations students need to achieve their educational goals,” she added.

Laney is doing well, having completed an associate degree in criminal justice last year. She is currently finishing an associate degree in general studies before she transfers to a four-year college this fall. She also works as an administrative assistant at Southwest’s Bluefield Center.

* * *


By the numbers

1968 – Year the college opened

710 – Number of students in its first year

2,135 – Total number of students in fall 2021

More than 80 — Programs of study

3 – The number of presidents in its history

Southwest Virginia Community College was built in a location that was more central to its service area rather than near any population centers, Wright said, and many of its students must travel an hour or more each day.

Because of the mountainous terrain, they must also travel winding, two-lane roads, he said.

“We believe that there are students that live on our perimeters who are currently driving to us, who could rent these units at a price point, particularly now with gas prices, they could rent from us for roughly the same price as they’re paying to be on the dangerous roads and time-consuming roads back and forth.”

Wright also noted that there are few rental properties available in the college’s service area.

* * *

The housing project

Groundwork continues on the construction site and there is work on the new entrance to the property. Construction of the building will begin soon, according to John Dezember, Southwest’s director of strategic communications.

The building will have six four-bedroom apartments that can house as many as 48 students. Each room will have an attached bathroom and can be double occupancy. Each apartment will have a shared living room, kitchen, laundry and deck. Kitchen appliances, including a washer and dryer, will be included.

The rent is expected to be $600 a month and that will cover the costs of internet, electricity, water, sewer and trash pickup.

Southwest officials say there is high interest among students in the new housing. They are working on the criteria that will be used to choose the first students who will live in the new apartments, but priority will be given to those who live a distance from the school.

The apartment building is expected to be completed in time for students to move in by August for the fall 2022 semester. The second building is not expected to be completed until at least January, Wright said.

“This is the first community college student housing in Virginia and is just one more example of our commitment to making our students feel welcome, appreciated, respected and supported in their educational journey,” Wright said.

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