I hope Gov. Glenn Youngkin is reading today because I have good news for him (and lots of others): Community college enrollment is up this fall.
That’s kind of a big deal because:
a) Community college enrollment in Virginia has been declining since 2011.
b) From 2019 to 2021, enrollment at community colleges declined in every state in the union except one, so Virginia’s decline is by no means unique.
c) Youngkin has publicly complained that Virginia’s community college enrollment has been going down. He sees jobs going unfilled, he sees enrollment going down at the educational institutions perhaps most responsible for training people for many of those jobs, and naturally he sees a disconnect.
I’ve written multiple times – here and here – that these enrollment declines aren’t surprising. They’re ultimately demographic in nature, the result of lower birth rates years ago that have reduced the number of people in the age cohorts most likely to go to school. That one exception to enrollment decline across the country is Utah, which also has the nation’s youngest median age. That demographic answer may be a satisfying answer to a data nerd like me but may not be a satisfying answer if you’re a governor who wants results and wants them now. So this slight enrollment uptick ought to be considered quite good news on the third floor of the State Capitol.
If I were advising the governor, I’d tell him he ought to be taking a victory lap to claim credit for these numbers, even if this increase had nothing to do with him because, well, that’s how politics works. Still, something has pushed these numbers up, even though demography says they ought to be going down.
Now, I have more asterisks to add to this conversation than Roger Maris ever had (obligatory baseball reference for those of you who aren’t fans). The numbers I’m about to cite come from the “early enrollment estimates” compiled by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. As the title suggests, they are early. More official figures will come later. And enrollment often fluctuates, particularly at community colleges where not all programs start at the same time. Some numbers may go up as new students sign on; others may go down as students drop. (I remember on my first day of college at what is today known as James Madison University I encountered a high school classmate headed the other direction – he’d had enough already and was dropping out after day one.)
Still, these numbers are there for all to see on the SCHEV website. The community college system is reluctant to talk about them just yet; a spokesman cautions that these are what each school reported to SCHEV, and the system office hasn’t had a chance to review them yet. I’m not inclined to wait, though. Neither are some of the individual schools, which I notice have sent out press releases calling attention to their numbers. So here they are:
In fall 2021, the community college system enrolled 144,215 students. These numbers for fall 2022 show 146,729 – an increase of 1.7%.That’s still lower than the pandemic fall of 2020, or any other year since 2001, when enrollment was 144,688. But if this holds, it would be the system’s first increase since fall 2011, when enrollment peaked at 197,226.
Community college enrollment: Total headcount
These figures come from the Early Enrollment Estimates compiled by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. These percentage increases are based on total headcount. Schools in italics have posted increases in full-time students, but not total headcount.
Schools gaining enrollment from fall 2021 to fall 2022:
Blue Ridge 4.2%
Central Virginia 3.0%
Eastern Shore 1.9%
J. Sergeant Reynolds 32.9%
Laurel Ridge 0.4%
Northern Virginia 3.8%
Southside Virginia 1.3%
Schools with no enrollment changes
Virginia Western 0%
Schools with declining enrollment from fall 2021 to fall 2022
Mountain Empire -6.4%
Mountain Gateway -9.8%
New River -0.5%
Patrick & Henry -2.9%
Paul D. Camp -4.0%
Southwest Virginia -6.5%
Virginia Highlands -10.0%
Virginia Peninsula -4.0%
Some more figures of note: Eleven of the system’s 23 schools show enrollment increases, 11 show declines, and one – Virginia Western in Roanoke – shows up as even. There’s a very strong correlation between location and enrollment. The schools showing enrollment increases are generally – with three exceptions – in the places where population is growing. The schools showing enrollment declines – with three different exceptions – are in places where the population is decreasing. That shouldn’t be very surprising. It’s hard for schools in, say, Southwest Virginia to increase enrollment when their pool of available students is shrinking.
Those three exceptions on the plus side are Eastern Shore Community College, Southside Virginia Community College and Wytheville Community College. All are in communities where populations are declining, yet all are posting enrollment increases. Eastern Shore is up 1.9%, Southside is up 1.3%, Wytheville is up 5.3%, the third biggest percentage increase in the state. If the governor is looking for a backdrop to declare victory on the enrollment front, here are three possible ones. This is the first time Southside’s enrollment has gone up since 2011, the first time Wytheville’s has gone up since 2010.
Then there are three exceptions on the other side – schools in growing communities that are seeing enrollment decline: Piedmont Community College in Albemarle County (-5.1%), Virginia Peninsula Community College in Hampton (-4.0%) and Tidewater Community College in South Hampton Roads (-10.0%). The latter is the largest enrollment decline of any Virginia community college. Keep this in mind, though: The latest IRS migration data shows that more people are moving out of its service territory than are moving in. Same for the biggest communities that Virginia Peninsula serves. Youngkin has been concerned about this, too; he’s the first governor to call attention to the data that shows Virginia is actually losing people. We may be gaining population through our birth rate but that covers up a deeper trend, that more people are moving out of the state than are moving in. Here’s another example of how those numbers play out in other ways. To reverse the enrollment declines at many of these schools, we first need to reverse the population trends in the community they’re serving.
Now, before I start to sound like too much of a cheerleader, I have to point out some less flattering figures. While 11 of 23 schools are showing enrollment increases, the systemwide increase is due entirely to one school: J. Sergeant Reynolds in Richmond. Its enrollment is up a spectacular 32.9%. In raw numbers, that’s 2,389 extra students. The overall system increase is 2,041 students. So take away Reynolds and the system would be showing an overall decline. Why is Reynolds up so much? Don’t know. Like I said, the system’s spokesman is reluctant to talk yet and Reynolds didn’t respond to my inquiry. But something good seems to be happening there, right?
Community college enrollment: Full-time students
These figures come from the Early Enrollment Estimates compiled by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. These percentage increases are based on full-time students.
School gaining enrollment from fall 2021 to fall 2022:
Blue Ridge 22.9%
Central Virginia 3.0%
Eastern Shore 1.1%
J. Sargeant Reynolds 61.6%
Laurel Ridge 9.4%
Northern Virginia 6.6%
Patrick & Henry 9.7%
Paul D. Camp 7.0%
Southside Virginia 34.6%
Southwest Virginia 2.8%
Virginia Peninsula 0.1%
Virginia Western 24.9%
School with declining enrollment from fall 2021 to fall 2022:
Mountain Empire -9.1%
Mountain Gateway -9.3%
New River -0.5%
Virginia Highlands -10.1%
So far, I’ve used the “total headcount” numbers, which includes both full-time and part-time students, of which community colleges often have many. More than two-thirds of community college students statewide are part-time – 99,892 of 146,729. That’s 68%.
If you look just at full-time students, then overall enrollment is up 8.5% – 43,166 students to 46,837, an increase of 3,166. It’s the part-time students where we’ve seen declines. Here’s another way to visualize this. Earlier I pointed out how Tidewater Community College had the state’s largest percentage decrease in enrollment. Here are the specific numbers: The school is down 1,799 students from last fall. A drop in part-timers accounts for 71% of that.
Meanwhile, I noted that Wytheville Community College has the state’s third highest enrollment increase – in percentage terms – behind only J. Sargeant Reynolds (that amazing 32.9%) and Brightpoint (7.3%). Virtually all of Wytheville’s increase has come through full-time students. Full-time enrollment there is up by 13.8%, a total increase of 100. The number of part-time students is up by just nine. If you assume that full-time students are harder to enroll than part-time ones, then Wytheville has posted its enrollment increases the hard way. Bravo for them, right?
Southside Virginia is even more impressive. Southside has seen the number of part-time students decline while the number of full-time students has increased by 34.6% – a headcount of 325. That seems pretty darned good for a rural area where the population is declining. Southside’s percentage increase in the number of full-time students is the second best in the state, behind only Reynolds.
Is one type of student better than another? That’s hard to say. Certainly schools would probably rather have full-time students but life doesn’t always work that way – and sometimes students may only need to go to school part-time to gain whatever skill they’re come to gain. I suspect, though, it’s fair to say that an increase in full-time students is a good thing and a drop is a bad thing, right?
If we consider just full-time enrollment, then things look different in some places.
For instance, Danville Community College technically shows an enrollment decline of 0.1%. In raw numbers, though, that’s a drop of just two students – from 2,330 a year ago to 2,328 now. That hardly seems a cause for concern. Indeed, full-time enrollment at Danville is up by 38 students, a healthy 4.3% increase. It’s a decline of 40 part-time students that pulls down the overall numbers. If those part-time students are now full-time students – or are gainfully employed – then we don’t have a problem here, we just have a statistical oddity and you know what they say about statistics.
Likewise, Virginia Western, whose overall enrollment is flat, has a big increase in full-time students – up 24.9%, from 1,633 to 2,039, a jump of 406. That’s the fourth biggest percentage increase of full-time students in the state, by the way, behind Reynolds, Southside and Brightpoint, in that order.
When we look closer, we see that some schools with overall enrollment declines are posting increases, sometimes big increases, in the number of full-time students:
Patrick & Henry Community College
Its overall enrollment is down 2.9%. But its full-time enrollment is up 9.7%, an increase of 95 students.
Pau D. Camp Community College
Its overall enrollment is down 4.0%. But its full-time enrollment is up 7.0%, an increase of 22 students.
Southwest Virginia Community College
Its overall enrollment is down 6.5%. But its full-time enrollment is up 2.8%, an increase of 29 students.
Virginia Peninsula Community College
Its overall enrollment is down 4.0%. But its full-time enrollment is up 0.1%, an increase of two students.
When you factor those in, then the only community colleges where full-time enrollment has declined are Mountain Empire, Mountain Gateway, New River, Piedmont, Tidewater and Virginia Highlands. Of those six, four of those are in places where population (as counted by the 2020 census) has declined and one (Tidewater) is in a place where there’s now more out-migration than in-migration. Piedmont stands out as the exception. The 17 other schools all showed increases in full-time enrollment, even though some are working uphill in communities with shrinking populations. Keep in mind, too, what statisticians call “the tyranny of small numbers,” meaning percentage changes with small numbers can look big. That decrease in full-time enrollment at Mountain Gateway is only 33 students, a small number when measured against a community that lost more than 1,000 people in the last census.
Numbers don’t tell the whole story, of course, and out of 23 schools, there are surely 23 different stories. I had a column a few weeks ago about how Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg attributed its enrollment increase to a switch from traditional marketing to digital marketing. And we don’t have figures yet on how much of this enrollment increase is driven by the G3 program started under former Gov. Ralph Northam that effectively made programs in certain high-demand fields tuition-free. However, we know from reporting earlier this year by WVTF-FM that enrollment in those programs was surging so it’s quite likely that Youngkin will benefit from a Northam initiative. Big picture, though, the point is that the more than a decade’s worth of enrollment trends seem to be changing. The governor may have had nothing to do with that but given his interest in the community college system, these seem to be numbers he’d like to see.