Germanna Community College held it's Nursing and Health Technologies Convocation in 2014. Nursing and other health programs continue to be a popular choice for students at the school near Fredericksburg. (Creative Commons, Robert A. Martin via Wikimedia)

By 2026, Virginia Community College Chancellor Glenn DuBois thinks colleges will be competing so hard for students, it will feel like “The Hunger Games.”

“Beginning in 2026, we will see a decline in the traditional college-aged student that is more dramatic than we’ve ever seen before,” DuBois said in a 2018 address to community college leaders.

Last year was the seventh straight year of enrollment decline for the Virginia Community College system.

System-wide, the Virginia Community College System lost about two percent of its students between 2013 and 2018, according to data from the State Council for Higher Education of Virginia.

In some places, enrollment has crept back up after dipping down. In others, including the largest colleges in the 23-school system, enrollment continues to drop.

To keep seats filled and state funding coming — community colleges get state money based on enrollment numbers — DuBois wants to change the type of student that considers attending a community college.

He wants adult students older than 25 to see the system’s fast-track career certification and skills programs as a way out of dead-end and low-paying jobs.

“While serving 18-year-olds remains an important part of what community colleges do, it probably won’t be the most important thing we do,” DuBois said in his 2018 remarks. “The need for higher education is strong and growing, but its traditions are fleeting.”

 System leaders are also anticipating a smaller pool of students in the future, thanks to the country’s shrinking birthrate.

There were 4.2 million births among women aged 15–44 (what the government considers childbearing age) in 2000, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

In 2008 — the year 18-year-olds who enroll in college in 2026 would have been born — the number of births was at 4 million.

Births continue to fall, according to the most recent report on birth rates. In 2017, 3.86 million births were registered in the United States, down two percent from 2016.

Southside Community College, based in Alberta between South Hill and Emporia, has lost 2,354 students since 2013.

J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in the Richmond area has lost the largest number of students: 3,717 since 2013. It’s also one of a handful of colleges that have started to reverse the trend.

Germanna Community College in the Fredericksburg area has seen a considerable increase in its enrollment numbers, said Jan Gullickson, the college’s president.

In 2013, the college had about 7,300 students. Enrollment dipped to 6,600 students last year but bounced back up to about 7,200 this school year.

“We’re in a very desirable geographic area,” Gullickson said of the school’s rebound. “Many community colleges across the country have lost enrollment because many of them are dispersed throughout states.”

She also said the college made some common-sense changes, like getting departments to work together to create better class schedules, streamlining enrollment and financial aid processes and hiring more student advisers.

“I think everyone here at Germanna … all know enrollment’s their business,” Gullickson said.

When enrollment drops, colleges often have to lay off staff, which Gullickson did when she started at Germanna. Most recently, Tidewater Community College in Hampton Roads, one of the state’s largest community colleges, also had to lay off staff because of declining enrollment.

“It’s ugly,” Gullickson said of campuses struggling with fewer students. “In Virginia, enrollment is king. You have to have enrollment to have money in Virginia.”

President Barack Obama tours the Automotive Training Program at the Northern Virginia Community College, Alexandria Campus, before delivering remarks on June 8, 2011 in Alexandria, Virginia. Obama spoke about the importance of training and preparing the workforce to compete for manufacturing jobs. (Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images)

‘The traditional college menu doesn’t sync up’

At the community colleges where enrollment has managed to recover, students can often enroll in niche programs that funnel them into a career.

Community colleges have an inverse relationship with the economy: When things are good, community colleges struggle to get students. When there’s a downturn, community colleges thrive as people go back to train for new or more stable careers quickly.

DuBois said he thinks the key to increasing enrollment even when the economy is in an upswing will be older adults who lack mobility in their current jobs and feel pressure to make more money.

“They’re in low-paying jobs and not making enough money, they have car payments, they have rent, they have kids, they simply want a better opportunity but the traditional college menu doesn’t sync up,” he said. “It’s not an appropriate opportunity for them because they can’t give three or four years or even two, but they may have a few weeks or a semester.”

“Not all of these people live below Virginia’s poverty line. Some are just barely above it, making them harder to see, understand and serve.”

At Patrick Henry Community College in Martinsville, a popular welding program has also drawn in enough students that there’s a waiting list and a new building with space for those students should open in the next two years, said Randy Ferguson, the college’s spokesperson.

At Germanna, Gullickson said the school’s asphalt technician program is a popular choice among students, as is information technology and cybersecurity. 

“It’s a big win-win,” DuBois said of community colleges’ programs. “Employers are screaming for these people.”