The early returns are in.
Not from the election but from something potentially more important, at least to the economy: college enrollment.
Before I delve into the numbers, let me first apply more asterisks than Roger Maris ever had. These numbers come from the “Early Enrollment Estimates” database maintained by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. As the name suggests, these numbers might change. Early in the semester, some students may yet drop out, others may still register. Nonetheless, some schools are already issuing press releases about their enrollment (especially if it’s up), so I’m not inclined to wait for a final tally. The numbers may wiggle and jiggle a little but I’m more focused on bigger trends than counting every last head. SCHEV says Virginia Tech’s undergraduate enrollment is 30,559; the school has a release that says it’s 30,434. I’m not going to worry about that difference. Let’s look at the big trends.
I’m also going to focus here on undergraduate enrollment, as opposed to overall enrollment with graduate students. In some cases, there are schools that have seen undergraduate enrollment decline but overall enrollment increase. In some cases, there are schools with just the opposite trend. That overall enrollment certainly matters in many ways but for our purposes today, I’ll just look at the undergrads unless otherwise noted.
Here’s the most important thing to know: Across the state, undergraduate enrollment is up ever so slightly – from 403,471 in fall 2021 to 404,699 in fall 2022. That’s an increase of 0.3%. You can either say that enrollment increased or essentially stayed flat. Both are true. The backdrop is the so-called “enrollment cliff” that colleges have been worrying about for years. Birth rates are falling, so there are fewer people in the traditional college-age cohorts. At some point, college enrollment across the country is probably going to fall simply because there are fewer potential students available. We also see a growing – and probably overdue – trend to get students interested in trades that don’t require a four-year education, further reducing the number of potential students. The pandemic also depressed enrollment. The National Student Clearinghouse hasn’t published data for fall 2022 enrollment yet but we’ve seen enough announcements to know that many schools across the country are seeing enrollment declines. I looked more deeply at these demographic factors in a previous column.
In Virginia, among four-year schools, 26 saw undergraduate enrollment decrease in these SCHEV figures, 14 saw enrollment increase. Schools have been fighting over students for a long time; look at the boom in various amenities to make each school more attractive. If, in the future, there are fewer potential students available, we’ll likely see even fiercer competition. So yes, here’s the situation: Virginia’s overall college enrollment is up slightly but most Virginia schools saw their enrollment decline. Here’s some more context:
- Some HBCUs post big increases: The biggest enrollment increase – in percentage terms – comes at Regent University, at 13.7%. The next two biggest increases are at two of Virginia’s historically Black schools. Virginia State posted an undergraduate increase of 12.7%. Norfolk State had the third biggest at 6.3%. This is part of a national trend that PBS reported on earlier this year; historically Black colleges and universities across the country have seen applications increase by one-third over the past three years. PBS quoted college leaders who attributed some of this to the social unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis; they said many Black students may feel a more welcoming environment at an HBCU. Not all HBCUs have shared in those enrollment increases, though. Hampton University and Virginia Union University posted double-digit enrollment declines.
- Virginia Tech tops 30,000 for the second time. This is a goal the university has set – and now met. Again. Hold that thought and we’ll soon look at the implications of this.
- Who’s biggest? In terms of undergraduates, Liberty University is the state’s largest school – 50,863 – although those numbers are boosted by its online programs. SCHEV says the school has 13,802 students on campus in Lynchburg. If that’s the measure, then SCHEV says Virginia Tech has more than 30,000 on campus in Blacksburg, while George Mason has 22,702. So, yes, the biggest presence of college students anywhere in the state is in Southwest Virginia (assuming you count Blacksburg as part of Southwest Virginia; some definitions vary).
- What does this mean for the New River Valley? Virginia Tech’s growing enrollment – a decade ago ago, it was 23,859; three decades ago, it was 18,860 – has produced mixed reviews on its home turf. The town of Blacksburg sometimes feels stressed by Tech’s growth; some there were especially unhappy at Tech’s unexpected “over-enrollment” a few years ago. Government and business leaders in many nearby localities have been thrilled: More college students at Tech means that potentially more will stick around after graduation, enriching the local labor pool and helping reverse declining population trends in many places. From their point of view, Tech’s 30,000-plus enrollment is a very good thing. However, we need to look at this in net terms. While Tech has been growing enrollment, Radford University has seen its enrollment go down. In net terms, Tech is up 889 this fall (using the SCHEV numbers), but Radford is down 524, so the net gain in the New River Valley is 365. Speaking of declines …
- The biggest enrollment declines. In percentage terms, the biggest enrollment decline is at Marymount University, which is down 16.3% in its undergraduate enrollment. Also posting double digit declines: Virginia Union, down 13.5%; Hampton University, down 12.0%; and Shenandoah University, down 11.5%. I know there’s been much chatter in the Roanoke and New River valleys about Radford’s numbers – down 8% – but this is the context for that.
- North Carolina looks much like Virginia. Speaking of context, here’s some. The early enrollment picture in North Carolina looks much like Virginia. Just as we have seen enrollment surge at our state HBCUs, so has North Carolina. North Carolina A&T is up 1.56% and just hit a new enrollment peak. Meanwhile, enrollment at some regional universities in North Carolina has fallen. Western Carolina University is down 2%, East Carolina is down 3%.
I’m not sure how applicable it is but we also see something similar in Kansas, another state that has released more comprehensive data. Kansas has seen overall enrollment at four-year schools decline, while enrollment at tech schools (its equivalent of the credentials programs at our community colleges) has increased. And the enrollment changes at Kansas schools have been uneven. The flagship school, the University of Kansas, saw enrollment decline slightly, by 0.4%. However, enrollment at one regional school, Wichita State, surged by 5.1%. Meanwhile, enrollment at other regional schools declined, from -2.6% at Pittsburg State University to -8.2% at Fort Hays State University, about the same percentage decline as our Radford has seen. For what it’s worth, Fort Hays State – while not a household name in these parts – is much bigger than Radford. Radford now enrolls 5,989 undergraduates; Fort Hays 12,951.
My point: All these enrollment changes have to be viewed within the context of national enrollment trends, and those national enrollment trends have to be viewed within the context of demography. We’d like to see Radford enroll more students, but I’m sure community leaders in Fort Hays would like to see their school enroll more, too.
Finally, let’s end on an up note:
- Sweet Briar College enrollment increases. It’s not up much – 453 to 458 – but that’s still an increase, and it comes against the backdrop of the attempted closure of the school in 2015. This represents a 44.9% increase in enrollment from fall 2015 when the school regrouped after uncertainty about whether it would reopen. Sweet Briar is not yet back to where it was, enrollment-wise, but it’s headed in the right direction. Given the national enrollment trends, what’s happening at Sweet Briar seems just as remarkable now as it did five years ago.