Gov. Glenn Youngkin has some reasons to smile right now — maybe 19 or 20 of them.
A year ago, you’ll recall that the governor was very unhappy with the state’s search for a new chancellor to lead the community college system following the retirement of Glenn DuBois.
Youngkin intervened to head off one potential choice (said to be former state Secretary of Education Anne Holton, wife of Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia) and then essentially forced the board’s next choice, an educator from Michigan, to change his mind about taking the job.
Youngkin sent off a strongly worded letter to the community college system’s board that complained his administration was being excluded from the process and then employed the curious legal word “misfeasance,” which many read (no doubt correctly) as a not-so-subtle warning that he might replace the entire board if his concerns weren’t addressed.
One of those concerns was that community college enrollment had been declining since 2011, which in Youngkin’s view made it difficult for the state to train workers to fill job vacancies. “The next chancellor will need to lead VCCS to reverse these troubling indicators,” Youngkin wrote.
Well, that was then. This is now.
David Doré, previously a community college president in Arizona, took over as chancellor in April and embarked on a month-long tour of the state’s 23 community colleges. Throughout, he’s emphasized the need for the system to reorient itself, pointing out that falling birth rates means the number of high school graduates will soon start to decline, meaning a smaller pool of potential community college students. Meanwhile, nearly 2 million Virginians 25 and older have only a high school diploma at a time when employers are demanding more education.They aren’t necessarily demanding four-year degrees, though; often a community college credential in some field will do. Meanwhile, 1.2 million more Virginians have taken some college courses but not completed a program. “This means that there are more than 3 million working-age adults who lack a meaningful postsecondary credential,” Doré told a meeting of school officials in Roanoke this summer. “This is 35 times the number of high school graduates.”
His point: Community colleges need to do a better job of catering to older students, who aren’t necessarily coming in with the idea that they will transfer to a four-year school. Training them and elevating them into higher-paid jobs is what will help drive the economy.
There are some obstacles to this: Pell grants don’t cover such training programs (something that Kaine has been working on trying to change for years), and many of the adults who could benefit most from community college programs can’t afford to take them even if tuition is free: They can’t afford to give up their current low-wage jobs because who would pay for the rent or the child care? Not all these problems can’t be solved at once but Doré emphasized the need for institutions to change their business models to try. “This new recruitment strategy also requires us to shift our model of service delivery to be student-focused instead of institution-focused and align instruction to the places, times and formats that fit students’ busy lives,” he said in Roanoke.
That was also then and this is also now: The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia last week released early enrollment figures for all of Virginia’s post-secondary institutions. Cardinal education reporter Lisa Rowan wrote about those recently; today I’ll dive deeper into some of them..
Here’s what I notice, and here’s why I suspect the governor is smiling: Community college enrollment is up by 2.4%. In fact, it’s up at 20of the system’s 23 schools. Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg stayed even, which means only two of 23 schools saw enrollment go down. Those three were Piedmont and Virginia Peninsula and Mountain Gateway.
Update, Oct. 2: An earlier version of this column also listed Mountain Gateway as being down by a single student. President John Rainone tells me the data on the SCHEV site about his school is wrong. He says Mountain Gateway’s enrollment is up about 4%.
It’s notable that the two schools showing enrollment declines are in or near metro areas. Every community college in a rural area increased enrollment. The part of Virginia with the deepest and most persistent population decline is Southwest Virginia, yet Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap saw the state’s second-biggest enrollment increase — 9.3%. Only J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond saw a bigger percentage increase, at 10.1%.
Almost everything comes with a cautionary note of some sort, so here’s this one: These are one-year changes. Overall, the community college enrollment — 150,416, up from 146,553 a year ago — is still below the pre-pandemic figure of 160,426 in fall 2019.
On the other hand, that’s predictable for the reasons Doré laid out (and which I’ve addressed in multiple columns): demographics. Decades of falling birth rates has led to smaller generations being birthed. Immigration has filled out some of those but not enough; overall, we have smaller generations coming along behind us, which will cause wrenching changes across society. We’re seeing some of those already — worker shortages and fewer workers paying into Social Security. We’ll eventually see more — the so-called “enrollment cliff” that colleges fear.
Last year, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that over the previous two years, community college enrollment was down in 49 of 50 states — the only exception was Utah, which also has the youngest demographics in the nation. A follow-up report earlier this year found that community college enrollment came up slightly, but didn’t offer state-by-state breakdowns. We’re still waiting on this fall’s report but now we at least have Virginia’s numbers, and regardless of what’s happening nationally, Virginia’s community college enrollment is back up, as we see. In fact, this is the second year in a row that Virginia’s community college is up.
The state system hasn’t crunched all the numbers yet and spokesman Jim Babb says that after so many years of declining enrollment, “we’re naturally cautious about shouting about a rebound from the roof-tops.” However, he says, more than a quarter of the system’s overall growth is coming in the FastForward program, which involves short-term training programs in certain in-demand industries, particularly health care, information technology and skilled trades.
At some individual schools, the growth in such short-term programs is even bigger. At Mountain Gateway, enrollment in those FastFoward programs was up 45.56%. Greg Hodges, president of Patrick & Henry Community College, says that enrollment in non-credit workforce programs was up 42% last year over the previous year — and is up again. “Our non-credit workforce enrollment is up a whopping 77% when compared to this date last year,” he told me by email. “The economic renaissance in our community is very real, and more adult students are utilizing these opportunities for up-skilling and reskilling.” (I recently had a column about a new batch of census stats that show the Martinsville micropolitan area has the fastest wage growth in the state.)
However, Hodges said his school was also seeing growing enrollment from high school graduates. He and other community college presidents across Southwest and Southside attributed this to scholarship programs that their communities had initiated. (I wrote about those programs in an earlier column.)
At P&H, those scholarships are paid for by the Martinsville-based Harvest Foundation. This year’s cohort, the fifth, is the biggest ever — 26% larger than its predecessor, Hodges said. (Disclosure: The Harvest Foundation is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.)
Two schools in Southwest Virginia have brand-new scholarship programs that seem to be making a difference, their presidents said.
Mountain Empire Community College started its MECC Promise program this fall, thanks to funding from the Genan Foundation and local governments in the region. (Disclosure: The Genan Foundation is also one of our donors; same rules apply). This program “has had a positive impact on our enrollment,” says Mountain Empire President Kris Westover. “Essentially, 2023 graduates of high schools and home schools in our service region (Lee, Scott, Norton City, Wise and Dickenson) can attend MECC tuition-free.”
Adam Hutchison, president of Virginia Highlands Community College, cites a similar scholarship program for students from Smyth County who attend either his school or Wytheville Community College. “Combined with all of the other efforts by our colleges to connect with students (and their families) about the value and importance of community college, I think these types of ‘promise’ initiatives are making a difference in the college enrollment numbers,” he says. “I’m optimistic that programs for high school graduates in Washington County and the city of Bristol will come soon.” That Smyth County program also means that Wytheville Community College now has “last dollar” scholarship funding for all high school graduates in its service territory.
Several schools also cited new programs they had initiated to increase retention. At P&H that includes having more advisers/academic coaches, consolidating all student assistance programs in one place, expanding the food pantry and creating an on-campus hot meal voucher program. The challenge for community colleges is that many of their students are teetering on the edge financially and one unexpected setback, such as a car breakdown, can knock them out of school. Community colleges can’t solve all those problems but the emphasis these days is on so-called wraparound services to keep as many in school as possible.
Despite this good news, the demographic realities — and challenges — remain. No governor can make those go away, but Youngkin has good reason to celebrate these enrollment numbers. So does everybody else.