Patrick & Henry Community College. Courtesy of the school.

When Gov. Glenn Youngkin earlier this year expressed displeasure with the search for a new community college chancellor, he grumbled that the community college system has suffered declining enrollment. (On Wednesday, he demanded that board members resign if they don’t allow his administration to take part in the search; the board agreed).

When Radford University recently raised tuition, it referenced declining enrollment as one of the reasons driving the need to collect more money from existing students.

Meanwhile, at the recent Southwest Virginia Economic Forum at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, the keynote speaker – Jason El Koubi, president of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership – sketched out a hopeful vision for the region. Part of that vision: enrollment at UVA Wise rising again. Since that enrollment has been declining for five years in a row, the question seems logical: What would it take to reverse that trend?

We live in a culture that likes to blame, so it’s easy to see declining enrollment numbers and want to blame somebody. And, indeed, it’s easy here to find culprits: the parents of the mid-1990s who didn’t procreate enough children.

That’s not the answer many are looking for, but that’s ultimately why these schools are seeing declining enrollment.

Community college enrollment is declining across the country for demographic reasons. The typical age of a community college student is 26. In the mid-’90s, there was a dip in the number of births in the country. We’re now seeing the consequence of that: There are simply fewer students to enroll. Virginia’s experience is not unique: Over the past two years, community college enrollment has declined in 49 of 50 states – only Utah is the exception.

Four-year schools aren’t immune, either, just at different rates and different times. After that mid-’90s drop, births rose again during the late 1990s, then fell after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, spiked in 2006-2008, but then dropped sharply during the recession and have generally declined ever since. I’m not just talking birth rates here; I’m talking total number of births. The total number of births in 2020 was lower than at any time since the early 1980s. (The count for 2020 was 3.605 million, down from 4.32 million in 2007 and on a par with the 3.612 million in 1980.) That means community colleges now are feeling the effect of the drop in births in the mid-’90s, and four-year schools are feeling the effect of effect of that post-Sept. 11 drop in births in the early 2000s. Those looking further out wonder what the current, even more precipitous, drop in births will mean for enrollment, in, oh, say 18 years.

Here’s the big point to remember: Some schools are now seeing their lowest enrollments in 30 years of state record-keeping, while a few are seeing record enrollments. The former probably worry how much lower they will go as the pool of students shrinks; the latter may worry about how they will keep those record enrollments up, especially after they’ve invested in the infrastructure to support their current levels.

All these drops are part of the “enrollment cliff” that colleges fret about. They can’t keep increasing enrollment because there are fewer college-age students to enroll – and we’re also seeing a long-overdue course correction in that schools and society are once again starting to place more value on trades. Colleges in the past probably enrolled some students who would have been better off in a trades program. Now they are. The only way for us to make up in the present for those birth drop-offs in the past is for us either to dramatically increase the number of international students or ramp up immigration, neither of which seems very likely in the current political environment. The numbers are what the numbers are. If we’re seeing births fall to what they were in the early 1980s, then that means in the future colleges can probably only enroll the number of students they did in, oh, 1998 or so. Math is math.

A few months back, after Youngkin’s initial foray into the community college chancellor hiring process, I looked specifically at community college enrollment. Twice, in fact. Now let’s take another look – both deeper in that we’ll look at specific schools and broader in that we’ll look at four-year schools, too, both public and private. All this data comes from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, specifically the council’s fall 2021 headcount. The council does a spring headcount, too, but the fall numbers are generally more favorable since that’s the traditional start of a school year. Buckle up! More math ahead (and probably some unhappy public relations officials at certain colleges).

Community colleges

Here’s the most important thing to know: Every community college in Virginia except one saw its enrollment peak in 2009-2012. Demographics weren’t necessarily the reason for this; the economy was. Community colleges have historically seen enrollment go up when the economy is bad – out-of-work people with time to go back to school to acquire additional skills – and go down when the economy gets better. The economy in 2009-2012 was not very good; we were either in or coming out of a recession.

Those highs are now about a decade old, and a decade is often a good time period by which to measure things. The problem here is that if we measure back 10 years from now we hit those record highs, so that presents a distorted picture of community college enrollment. Yes, Virginia community college enrollment has dropped from 197,226 in 2011 to 144,215 in 2021 – a drop of 26.8% – but what did you expect? Of course it’s going to drop from that high. The question is what should it have dropped to, and how does that compare with where we are now?

That overall 2021 enrollment is about the same as it was in 2001. I’d need more math skills than I possess to figure out if that’s good or bad. We’d have to crunch some numbers on population (which has grown) and age cohorts (which, as we’ve seen, fluctuate over time) and the economy (which definitely fluctuates) to know if 2021 enrollment overperformed or underperformed relative to 2001 and where we think it ought to be. In golfing terms, we need to handicap this. We might also want to compare ourselves to other states: Which states are doing a better job? All those would seem useful things to understand before we declare the community college system to be underperforming. All we know is that an enrollment drop of some sort over the past decade should be completely expected for multiple reasons.

Before we go on, you’re probably wondering about that one community college that didn’t see its peak enrollment in 2009-2012. The exception was Southwest Virginia Community College, which peaked in 1994 instead. Is this just an oddity? Or does this reflect how much its service territory has been depopulated as coal has collapsed? Southwest Virginia’s territory includes Buchanan County, which has lost population at a faster rate than any other county in the state. That surely has to make a difference, right?

That’s also why I don’t know if it’s fair to compare each of Virginia’s 23 community colleges to that 2001 baseline. Many of those in Southwest and Southside have seen the populations of their service areas decrease, so that makes it even more difficult for them to enroll additional students. Perhaps that explains some of this: Six schools in 2021 saw their lowest enrollments in nearly 30 years of data (the SCHEV data goes back to 1992). Five of those are in Southwest and Southside, areas which have seen regular population declines: Danville, Mountain Empire, Patrick & Henry, Southwest and Wytheville. The sixth is the oddity: J. Sergeant Reynolds in the Richmond suburbs. Two others – Central Virginia in Lynchburg and Southside Virginia in Keysville – saw their lowest enrollments in 2020 but came up slightly in 2021.

The low enrollments are worrisome but they’re also understandable in the context of their communities’ population outflows. The question, again, is context. Are they lower than they should be? More context: Enrollments at Danville and Wytheville are nearly half what they were during their 2010 highs, which sure doesn’t sound good. But the enrollments at Thomas Nelson (soon to be Virginia Peninsula) and Tidewater Community College are also about half their peaks in 2010 and 2011, respectively, and they’re in communities that have seen population growth. Those declines seem far more unexpected than the ones in Danville and Wytheville.

Four-year public schools

Here’s where the picture is much more mixed. Earlier this year, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on how the state’s most prestigious four-year schools are seeing enrollment increases, while others are seeing enrollment declines. This data expands on that reporting, which can be summed up with the old adage: The rich get richer.

Even in an era of enrollment declines, James Madison University, the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary set record highs. Four others were down slightly from the year before but, historically speaking, are growing: George Mason University is more than twice as big as it was in 1994 (the low in the SCHEV data). Old Dominion is nearly twice as big as its 1994 low. Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech are also substantially bigger than they were in the 1990s – VCU from 14,310 in 1995 to 21,625 now; Virginia Tech from 19,498 in 1995 to 29,760 now.

On the other hand, Radford University and the University of Mary Washington saw enrollment in fall 2021 that was lower than any in the three decades of SCHEV data. Christopher Newport’s was next to lowest. In that context, UVA Wise’s numbers don’t look so bad: 1,844, down from a high of 2,420 in 2012 (there’s that year again) but still higher than the 1,412 it had in 1995.

In effect, it looks like some of these bigger schools are drawing students away from the smaller one. In that Times-Dispatch story, SCHEV director Peter Blake said it was more complicated than that. Virginia’s losing more students to out-of-state schools, he said. And the states that produce the most out-of-state students for us – New York and Jersey – are seeing demographic drops in high school students, so that reduces the pool of out-of-staters.

Nonetheless, all this poses a philosophical question: Should Virginia discourage some of these more popular schools from growing so much so that smaller ones don’t get squeezed further as the number of students falls? Be careful how you answer that: From a regional point of view, it’s helpful to Southwest Virginia if Virginia Tech has a bigger enrollment. The more students who pass through Blacksburg, the more likely it is that some of them will stick around after graduation, helping both our economy and our demographics. This is a big economic strategy in the Roanoke Valley, so it’s in the valley’s economic self-interest to want a bigger Virginia Tech – but it doesn’t want a smaller Radford University. 

Private four-years

We see a similar split among private colleges: Some are growing, some are shrinking, some are shrinking a lot. In fall 2021, four schools – Christendom College (near Front Royal), Emory & Henry College, Shenandoah University (outside Winchester) and Southern Virginia University (in Buena Vista) saw their biggest enrollments in the history of the SCHEV data. That meant 539 students at Christendom, 1,073 students at Emory & Henry, 2,416 at Shenandoah, 1,066 at Southern Virginia. (Susan Cameron had this story about Emory & Henry’s growth spurt.) Liberty University’s 2021 enrollment was down slightly from the year before, but overall it’s definitely in a growth mode.

Some of the other schools showed pretty consistent enrollment over the years – Washington & Lee University among them.

But then there were some with noticeable enrollment declines. In fall 2021, Ferrum College, Hampton University and Randolph College had the lowest enrollments recorded in the SCHEV data. (Randolph will soon have a new president, and she told Randy Walker in this story that one of her top goals is to raise enrollment. That’s also probably the goal for almost every college president in the country.)

Given that the overall pool of available students is shrinking, the wonder isn’t that these schools are seeing lower enrollment but that some are seeing higher enrollment.

The future

Now let’s circle back to a data point I dropped earlier. In 2020, the United States saw about the same number of births that it did in 1980. If those kids born in 1980 went to college, they probably entered in 1998 (unless they took a gap year.). The number of births stayed about the same from 1980 to 1984 – about 3.6 million each year. So the relevant years to look at are 1998 to 2002.

In 18 years, it looks like the country will have about the same size college-eligible pool that it did from 1998 to 2002. So what if 18 years from now each Virginia college had the same enrollment it did in 1998 to 2002?

Let’s skip over community colleges – they’re geographically based, so to answer the question for them we’d need to know what the population of certain communities will be. Instead, let’s just focus on four-year schools where students are, in theory, geographical free agents.

Some four-year schools would see enrollments slashed. George Mason is 27,335 now; it was 16,687 in 2002. James Madison is 20,070 now; it was 14,828 then. Old Dominion is 18,678 now; it was 13,578 then. The University of Virginia is 17,256 now; it was 13,805 now. VCU is 21,625 now; it was 17,828 then. Virginia Tech is 29,760; it was 21,473 in 2002. Those enrollment increases are bigger than the entire enrollment of some smaller schools. 

Now we can probably assume that those schools will fight like tigers – or, perhaps, more like Patriots, Dukes, Monarchs, Cavaliers, Rams and Hokies – to keep their enrollments up. After all, they’ve got infrastructure that they’ve invested in. They won’t want empty dorms, empty classrooms, empty anything. So let’s assume they succeed and keep their enrollments more or less what they are now.

At whose expense are those “extra” students going to come, if you want to think of them that way? As a society, we need to get more students into post-secondary education if we want them to succeed in a modern economy. And while not all of those need to go to a four-year school, some do. Can we really increase the number of college students enough to keep all our colleges whole two decades from now? This is the math. We’ve got about 18 years to figure it out. 

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