Central Virginia Community College celebrates its enrollment increase. Courtesy of CVCC.

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Gov. Glenn Youngkin is concerned about community college enrollment declining at the same time there are jobs in Virginia going unfilled. His thinking is that community colleges ought to be busy training people for those jobs, and he’s not wrong.

Earlier this year I pointed out, though, that Virginia’s declining community college enrollment is primarily due to demographics – because of declining birth rates two to three decades ago, there are simply fewer people in the age cohorts most likely to go to community college. Indeed, Virginia’s hardly alone. From 2019 to 2021, only one state saw community college enrollment grow – and that was Utah, which has the nation’s youngest demographics. Demography really is destiny.

That’s why the governor ought to be taking a close look right now at what’s happening at Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg, and at some other places in the state community college system.

Fall enrollment numbers are still fluctuating because not all programs start at the same time. However, preliminary numbers compiled on Aug. 30 – the Fall Enrollment Comparison Report – show that, systemwide, this year’s numbers are either ever-so-slightly ahead of last year’s numbers or ever-so-slightly behind, depending on which measurement you go by. Given the demographic challenge that all colleges are up against – this is the so-called “enrollment cliff” – even a break-even year is something of a milestone. Moreover, some schools are seeing significant enrollment increases. By some measures, the second biggest enrollment jump in the state – both in raw numbers and percentages – is at Central Virginia and the biggest is at a school in a much bigger market, which makes Central Virginia’s number look even more impressive.

There are at least two ways to measure enrollment — in both total headcount and in full-time equivalents, and two ways to measure each of those, by percentages and raw numbers, so let’s look at them all.

Headcount at community colleges as of August 30. Source: VCCS.

At Central Virginia, the total headcount is up by 12.95% — from 3,314 to 3,540. In percentage terms, only Rappahannock Community College is up more — 16.84%. Only two other schools, J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond (11.50%) and Southside Virginia Community College (11.1%) are up by double digits. Of the 23 schools in the community college system, 12 show declining enrollment. (Don’t judge; we must return to this to make an important point).

In raw numbers, only Central Virginia’s increase of 406 is second only to J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College, which is up 734. Of course, Reynolds has a bigger market to draw from.

Community college enrollment as of August 30 by full-time equivalents. Source: VCCS.

When we look at full-time equivalents, Central Virginia’s enrollment is up from 1,922 to 2,126, a jump of 10.66%. J. Sargeant Reynolds is up by 12.67%; Rappahannock Community College is up by 16.34%. Those are the only three schools up in double digits. When we look at full-time equivalents in raw numbers, Central Virginia’s increase of 205 is second only to Reynolds’ 496.

As measured by full-time equivalents, 10 of 23 schools are presently posting slight enrollment decreases. Now from a very important caution: These declines aren’t surprising given the overall demographics in the prime age cohorts. Further, many of those 10 schools are also in rural areas, which have even more demographic challenges in those age cohorts. We don’t have to like these enrollment declines, but they don’t necessarily represent a failure on the part of the schools. Schools can’t enroll students who were never born. This would require more complex math than I am capable of, but those enrollment declines really need to be measured against the background of a community’s population decline. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those enrollment declines actually show the schools out-performing where they should demographically be expected to be. And then there’s this: The single biggest decline in the state isn’t at a rural school at all. It’s at Tidewater Community College, where total headcount is down -1,380 and full-time equivalents are down -813. I suspect this reflects the previously documented out-migration of people from Hampton Roads, where Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach have all seen more people move out than move in. This out-migration is something Youngkin referred to in a recent speech at Christopher Newport University; I explored that data in yesterday’s column. All these things are ultimately connected.

New, updated, numbers for community college enrollment will be out next week but for now these are the numbers we have to work with. For our purposes here in the western third of the state, the star is clearly Central Virginia. Why is its enrollment up so much?

President John Capps has a simple explanation: marketing.

Earlier this year, the school hired AccessU – an education-oriented subsidiary of the Roanoke-based Access advertising firm – to help with a makeover of the school’s branding.

Access designed a new logo and a new website for the school. “Our previous website was functional,” Capps told me. “At one time it had been heralded by the Virginia Community College System, but the content of our previous website read as if it had been written by Jack Webb [of ‘Dragnet’ fame] – it was ‘just the facts.’ We wanted to develop a new website, one that was warmer, more personal, more compelling.”

Of course, a new website – no matter how warm and personal and compelling – doesn’t do much if no one goes to it. For that, you need marketing, and here’s where we come to the interesting part.

“We had engaged in traditional advertising – TV ads, billboards, even bus placards – but they weren’t getting the job done,” Capps said.

Access switched Central Virginia’s message to digital marketing, a catchall phrase for a world of algorithms and social media.

“We heavily leaned into the Meta products – Facebook and Instagram,” Access president Tony Pearman told me. “We did a lot of YouTube pre-roll – the thing you see before you see what you want to see. We did a lot of search – search is one of the hardest-working things in advertising.” (Ever notice when you search for something on Google, you often get some ads? That’s what he’s talking about.)

Access also ventured out into other platforms – considered less conventional by conventional advertising standards but not by the standards of the audience that its client at Central Virginia was trying to reach. So there were ads on things like TikTok and Twitch, the latter a popular gaming platform.

“The biggest undiscovered territory right now is TikTok,” Pearman said. The platform is huge; it claims 1 billion monthly active users worldwide. (Of which I am one. I’ve only posted one video, about a bear on my back deck, but it’s where all my favorite bands are posting content. Alas, my bear video will not be winning me a recording contract anytime soon.)

“It’s still the wild, Wild West” on TikTok, Pearman said. “Unlike Facebook, which is heavily monitored, you don’t know who you’re going up against.” There’s also another unpredictable factor, he said: “the ability of students of a certain age to disdain advertising.” That means any advertising has to feel very authentic or you risk alienating the very people you’re trying to attract.

These platforms work, though. Another of AccessU’s clients is the entire Virginia community college system. Pearman says that advertising the G3 program on digital platforms helped increase enrollment in those fields by 9%. (The G3 program provides tuition enrollment for those enrolled in programs leading to certain high-demand careers; that campaign was a joint effort between AccessU and The Hodges Partnership in Richmond.)

“I don’t understand a lot of what Access is doing in this digital marketing,” Capps said. “That’s why we wanted to turn it over to true marketing professionals. They advised us that we would never see anything they were doing because we aren’t the demographics.” Indeed, Capps jokes that “I’ve seen us online only once. They advised us, if we do see them, don’t click on them, that would skew the data.”

Some larger context: Digital marketing is, indeed, where the action is today. That’s also one reason why newspapers have declined so precipitously – they’ve lost much of their advertising revenue to digital platforms that can target people much more precisely. We at Cardinal have also used digital marketing to help get the word out about us, so we owe part of our rise to the very thing that has helped undermine newspapers. Many of you may have first encountered us through an ad on some social media platform – just not TikTok or Twitch.

“Our enrollment increase is outpacing the increases of their other clients,” Capps said. “Others have questions: Why is CVCC doing so well?”

As with anything else, it helps to have a good product to sell, and right now a lot of the job growth is coming in fields that require more than a high school diploma – figures posted in 2019 by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service showed that the single biggest job category was for people with some college or an associate’s degree; a separate study by Georgetown University put the figure at about one-third of all jobs.

“CTE programs are booming,” Capps said, referring to career and technical education. “Welding, machine tooll, mechatronics in particular are seeing record enrollment. Welding filled up almost immediately.”

In terms of raw numbers, Central Virginia has also seen the state system’s second biggest increase in dual-enrollment students – these are high school students who sign up for college-level classes. The CVCC numbers are up by 101. Only J. Sargeant Reynolds, Brightpoint (formerly John Tyler) and Piedmont Virginia (outside Charlottesville) have seen bigger increases in terms of raw numbers. The two Richmond-area schools obviously have the advantage of being in a bigger market and Piedmont Virginia has the advantage of being in a faster-growing one. Those 101 extra dual-enrollment students account for nearly half of Central Virginia’s overall 205-student increase so far when measured in full-time equivalents. In terms of total headcount, they count even more. Of Central Virginia’s 406-student increase, 314 of those students come from dual enrollment.

Enrollment in FastForward programs as of Sept. 6. CCWA is an acronym for Community College Workforce Alliance—a partnership between Reynolds and Brightpoint since they’re both in the Richmond metro. Source: VCCS.

Capps also points to another set of data: non-credit enrollment in so-called “FastForward” programs. At Central Virginia, enrollment in those programs is up by 101 students, an increase of nearly 230%. Whether in raw numbers or percentage, no other school is anywhere close. “We attribute the increase to marketing and to new program offerings in CDL [commercial dirver’s license] and CNA [certified nursing assistant],” Capps said. “The CNA program is a collaborative initiative with Centra Health. All those FastForward enrollments are being driven by the Workforce Credentials Grant and — the governor would like this — Virginia Ready, which he began as a private citizen.”

Capps started his career in the 1970s teaching English at Virginia Western Community College, back in the days when community colleges were often viewed “as high schools with ashtrays.”

“We were viewed as second-class citizens,” Capps said. “During my career, community colleges have really come into our own. We know what we’re not – we’re not ivory towers. It’s been a transformational experience for me to see how community colleges have risen in importance and stature during the course of my career.”

One thing hasn’t changed, though: The students that community colleges seek out don’t necessarily see themselves as students. Pearman said he was told “the hardest challenge we ever have with a student is that walk they take from their car to someone in enrollment.” That’s why a nontraditional message, on a nontraditional platform, can be so important. “Given the demographics of our student body, it’s often time and life that get in the way of their education,” Capps said. That’s one reason why the school has now hired a “community connections coordinator” to help put students in touch with social service resources they might need. Housing insecurity and food insecurity are big buzzwords you hear community college administrators talk about today.

If Youngkin is serious about wanting to increase community college enrollment – and I assume he is, because it’s so connected with his overall job growth goals – he should be heartened about these preliminary numbers on community college enrollment this fall. He should also look into why the schools, such as Central Virginia, that are posting such impressive enrollment increases are doing so – especially when all the demographics odds are against them. And he’ll also likely need to pay more attention to the challenges in keeping some community college students enrolled. He might start with a visit to Lynchburg to see all this happening in one place.

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Dwayne Yancey

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