Radford University saw a 3.9% enrollment drop this year. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

Amid a national conversation about the value of going to college, enrollment at Virginia institutions is for the most part holding steady. 

About 529,000 students are enrolled in college in Virginia, whether in a public or private four-year setting or at a two-year school. That’s an increase of about 2% over last year, when total enrollment was just over 519,000, according to new estimates available through the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. 

Enrollment at four-year public universities saw an estimated increase of 829 students this fall over last year’s fall enrollment of 221,120. 

At private four-year schools, estimated enrollment rose by about 5,300, a 3.5% increase over last year’s actual enrollment of nearly 149,300.

At two-year public institutions, estimated enrollment is up about 2.5% over last year’s actual enrollment of 148,693, though community college numbers have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.

All of the enrollment tallies include both full-time and part-time students.

SCHEV publishes estimates in the fall prior to announcing final headcounts to account for varying semester start dates and add-drop periods for classes at the start of the semester.  

The fall estimates show that the so-called “enrollment cliff” — an anticipated decline in college interest due to shrinking population numbers — is not yet evident in Virginia. 

But small schools are already competing with larger colleges to recruit and retain students, who have more options for education and job training after high school than perhaps ever before.

At Virginia Tech and George Mason University, for instance, enrollment has continued to climb gradually even throughout the pandemic; Tech’s projected enrollment is up by less than 1% over last year. At the University of Virginia, fall enrollment has been in the 23,000-25,000 range for most of the last 20 years. 

Enrollment estimate declines more noticeable at smaller schools

Schools that have gained or maintained enrollment help balance out some of the state’s smaller schools, where fluctuations in enrollment can be more obvious. 

The University of Mary Washington has seen a 30% decline since reaching an enrollment high of 5,380 in 2009. Eastern Mennonite University has seen a similar drop, with 1,773 students in fall 2015 compared with an estimated 1,180 this fall, for a 33.4% drop.

Radford is one public university that’s been focusing on building its enrollment back up to previous levels. Total enrollment there this fall is estimated at 7,418. 

That’s a 3.9% drop compared to last year’s enrollment of 7,718. The school has not yet returned to its pre-pandemic student population of about 9,000 between its main campus and Radford University Carilion in Roanoke. 

Patrick Reed, director of strategic communications at Radford, acknowledged that students who apply there have a lot of options to choose from, including James Madison, George Mason and Virginia Tech. Radford has begun a campus-wide effort to make it the top choice for more applicants and is targeting recruiting efforts on prospective candidates who live within a two- to three-hour radius of Radford.

The school has already made gains in retaining students from year to year. The percentage of 2022 freshman returning in 2023 increased by about 4%. The retention rate for transfer students also increased about 4%. 

Radford is also looking to expand or restart partnerships with area community colleges to attract transfer students. In April, Radford signed an agreement to guarantee admission to some Virginia Western Community College students studying biotechnology. 

A major step toward Radford’s efforts is solidifying its leadership under President Bret Danilowicz, who took the reins in summer 2022 with a goal of increasing main-campus enrollment to at least 8,000. 

The school recently hired a new vice president of enrollment management, who is taking over from an interim leader, Reed noted, and hired a permanent provost to take over for an interim administrator.

Some schools seeing notable post-pandemic enrollment recovery

Though many schools are retooling their recruiting techniques to woo a share of the shrinking pool of applicants, some are seeing enrollment rebound since the pandemic.

Enrollment at Averett University has increased by more than 51%, from 896 in fall 2019 to an estimated 1,357 this fall. The private university in Danville recently launched a hospitality and tourism program thanks to a large gift from Caesars Virginia, which has begun casino operations in the city. 

The Virginia Military Institute, which had 1,698 students enrolled in 2019, saw an estimated 1,560 cadets enroll at its campus in Lexington this fall. VMI is showing signs of recovering from a steep enrollment drop during the pandemic, which coincided with a state investigation into allegations of racism and a resulting wholesale review of the culture at the state-run military college.

The school’s 2022 enrollment of 1,512 was its lowest since 2009.

At its September meeting, VMI’s board of visitors discussed upcoming online campaigns to promote the value of attending VMI, focusing on prospective students in Virginia as well as those living around major U.S. military bases.

Further Southwest, an estimated 1,900 students started the fall semester at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. It’s an uptick of more than 9% from last year’s enrollment of 1,737. 

The college saw nearly 3,300 applicants for this fall semester, the most in about two decades. 

UVA Wise has been intentional about increasing access and affordability, said Jeffrey Baylor, vice chancellor for enrollment management. The school recently eliminated its application fee and enrollment deposit requirement, along with streamlining the application process. 

There’s been recent discussion about the idea of making UVA Wise a research university. In the meantime, the school is working on implementing $12 million in funding from the 2022 General Assembly to use toward enrollment growth. 

Initiatives include offering increased financial aid, adding undergraduate programs in applied data analytics and hospitality, and opening a child care center to meet local needs for faculty, staff and students. 

The school has hired faculty for both new academic programs, and the Little Cavaliers Early Learning Center opened this month. 

UVA Wise also launched its first graduate program this fall. The master’s in education program has 22 students in its first cohort.

The admissions application for next fall is already open, and Baylor said that the school already has more applications than at this point last year. 

Though the delayed launch of the new federal student aid application means prospective students can’t determine what need-based aid they’ll be eligible for, UVA-Wise can still admit students and offer merit-based scholarships. 

Knowing about those scholarship awards as early as possible, Baylor said, can help clear the path for prospective students concerned about the affordability of attending college.

Lisa Rowan is education reporter for Cardinal News. She can be reached at lisa@cardinalnews.org or 540-384-1313.