The Rotunda at the University of Virginia. (Style Weekly)

Early head counts from Virginia’s colleges and universities show an overall 1.3 percent decline in student enrollment this fall — a total of 6,658 students, according to a new report from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Spokeswoman Laura Osberger said it was the first time that SCHEV publicly announced the preliminary estimates, which can change between November and early January as four-year and community colleges submit official student records. But the announcement came after months of uncertainty for higher education amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with some analysts predicting a 20 percent drop in enrollment earlier this year. 

“One of the reasons we came out with this information is because this year is different than other years,” Osberger added. “We sort of took a risk by releasing it, but we did so because it’s not as bad as everyone predicted.”

Overall, much of the decline was driven by enrollment in two-year community colleges, which dropped by 9.7 percent compared to 2019. Enrollment at public four-year colleges and universities declined by 0.2 percent. 

Those decreases were at least partially offset by enrollment at private four-year schools, which actually went up by 6.6 percent. But Tod Massa, SCHEV’s director of policy analytics, said the increased enrollment was almost entirely driven by new students at Liberty University — an evangelical college based in Lynchburg with an established online degree program. 

Liberty’s total head count increased by nearly 12 percent this fall, including more than 9,500 new out-of-state students — most of whom likely enrolled virtually, Massa added.

“The thing is that Liberty is a known player in distance education,” he said. “And when everybody went remote, there’s probably a subset of students who said, ‘Hey, this place has been doing it all along.’” Without the increases in Liberty’s student population, four-year colleges across Virginia would have seen a slight overall decline in enrollment.

Massa also emphasized that the preliminary estimates don’t provide much demographic detail about the changes. Until SCHEV receives official records from schools across Virginia, it can’t provide a breakdown of how attendance has changed among first-generation students or Pell Grant recipients, for example, or whether enrollment declined more among men or women.

There are already some early indicators that the pandemic is changing student behavior in unprecedented ways. Massa said that community college enrollment usually rises with the unemployment rate as more people use economic downturns to develop new skills or transition to other industries. 

But judging by the early decrease in enrollment at Virginia’s two-year schools, that doesn’t appear to be happening — though Osberger said many community colleges start classes later in the semester or offer shorter technical programs that can change initial estimates.

“I think it has to do with the unusual nature of this particular economic period,” Massa added. “I’m guessing that many students who would have otherwise attended are thinking this might turn around immediately and they’ll go right back to work.”

One of the biggest concerns for SCHEV is that low-income students will end up disproportionately driving the drop in enrollment. National research has shown a greater decline in down payments on tuition from students with Expected Family Contributions — a calculation based on income, assets and benefits such as unemployment — below $10,000. There’s also been a drop in completion rates for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (better known as FAFSA).

Right now, SCHEV doesn’t know for sure if lower-income Virginians are choosing not to enroll in college at greater rates. Massa pointed out that some students may be choosing to take a gap year during the pandemic. But Virginia State University, a historically Black school in Petersburg that decided to resume classes fully online this semester, polled students who received a reimbursement for their housing deposits and found that a significant number chose not to re-enroll because they didn’t have internet access at home. 

Virginia State University in Ettrick. (NBC12)

Donald Palm, VSU’s vice president for academic affairs, said the university offered stipends to help some students pay for computers. But 70 percent of the school’s students are Pell Grant recipients, which administrators suspected would have an impact on enrollment.

“What I will tell you is of course, when we look at COVID-19, many of our students had parents who lost their jobs,” Palm added. “So, what we want to do is work with the commonwealth to provide more financial opportunities to students so they can choose a place like VSU.”

Throughout the pandemic, colleges and universities have become increasingly vocal advocates for government support as lower enrollment counts drive fears of massive budget shortfalls. Both Massa and Osberger said SCHEV doesn’t currently have a good estimate of how college financials will be affected by the decline in Virginia, though early enrollment estimates suggest the impact will be much less severe than initially anticipated.

One of the clearest pictures to emerge is that auxiliary revenues — money made through services such as campus housing and dining — are taking the biggest hit at colleges and universities across the state. The University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors, for example, is anticipating a more than $14 million loss in housing and dining revenue and a shortfall of $40 to $50 million in athletics, according to a meeting earlier this month. 

Many schools have debt service for campus facilities such as dormitory and athletic centers, in addition to basic maintenance costs, which still have to be paid regardless of whether students are contributing fees, Massa pointed out.

“There’s money that you have to spend one way or the other,” he added. “If you’ve committed to paying a football coach $5 million a year and you don’t have football games, you have no revenue to support that.”