The pandemic didn’t hurt enrollment at most of Va.’s four-year universities. Not so for community colleges.

By: - March 22, 2021 12:01 am

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

Virginia’s colleges and universities weathered the COVID-19 pandemic without a significant loss in enrollment, according to new analysis from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. However, the report did flag a major drop in community college attendance.

“Big picture, Virginia colleges dodged a bullet,” said Tom Allison, SCHEV’s senior associate for finance policy and innovation. While national data showed an overall 2.5 percent drop in students, SCHEV found that enrollment across the state’s institutions of higher education was largely unchanged in fall of 2020 compared to the previous years.

“We’ve got charts that show a decline of 0.1 percent, which is really just a blip,” Allison said. “That’s good news. What it means is that students are continuing their education. And on the institutional front, it means — for the most part — those institutions have tuition revenue to help balance their books.”

SCHEV’s final analysis, published this week, uses official student records submitted by the state’s four-year and community colleges. The organization also published a preliminary report in September that estimated a 1.3 decline in enrollment — far less than the 20 percent drop predicted by some experts at the start of the pandemic. 

“We sort of took a risk by releasing it, but we did so because it’s not as bad as everyone predicted,” SCHEV spokeswoman Laura Osberger said of the early analysis. That the final report showed an even smaller drop in enrollment was a relief to many of the state’s colleges and universities, which spent much of last spring worried about a potential decline in the incoming freshman class. 

While SCHEV described the statewide data as a “promising” sign for Virginia schools, institution-level enrollment numbers raised larger concerns over inequities in attendance. While seven of Virginia’s public colleges grew their total enrollment in fall of 2020 compared to the previous year — including a 777-student jump at George Mason University — eight lost students. 

A chart from SCHEV analyst Tom Allison shows the total change in enrollment at Virginia’s four-year public colleges and universities.

One of the most significant enrollment declines was at Radford University, which lost a total of 1,175 students. Allison said the dip was mostly due to the phase-out of a federally funded competency-based education program, and didn’t represent a major drop in traditional undergraduate students.

Other drops were more worrying, including a loss of enrollment at Norfolk State University and Virginia State University — two public historically Black colleges. 

Virginia State University in Ettrick. (NBC12)

VSU lost a total of 345 students — an eight percent drop compared to fall 2019. Donald Palm, the university’s vice president for academic affairs, told the Mercury in September that many of the students who chose not to re-enroll said they didn’t have internet access at home.

VSU opted for all-remote classes in the fall, and many other Virginia colleges moved much of their coursework online in response to on-campus outbreaks. Palm said 70 percent of the university’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 said in September.

Overall, there was a less than one percent enrollment drop among Black students between 2019 and 2020, SCHEV data showed. Enrollment declined by 2.1 percent among Hispanic students and one percent among White students.

While the losses in all three demographic groups were comparable, Allison said any drop in enrollment among Black or Hispanic students was concerning given their lower baseline college attendance. In 2020, nearly 270,000 White Students enrolled in Virginia schools compared to 82,596 Black students and 45,435 Hispanic students.

“I think that context matters,” he added. “If you look at access rates below the pandemic as a baseline, it shows that African American and Hispanic high school seniors enroll in college at much lower rates.”

Also concerning was a significant drop in community college attendance compared to 2019. Overall, Virginia’s two-year programs saw a loss of more than 7,000 students — their lowest enrollment numbers since 2002.

That’s unusual, according to Allison, given that community college enrollment usually increases during recessions. He said it could be a reflection of the overall uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw many businesses close to comply with stay-at-home orders.

“If you did get laid off during something like this, you might think that job is going to be back sooner rather than later,” he said. At the same time, even in-demand health professionals like nurses were furloughed as a result of a statewide moratorium on elective procedures. That unpredictability could dissuade Virginians from investing in community college.

J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College’s  Parham Road campus in Henrico. (NBC12)

“If you want to invest your time and your money into improving your skills, that requires a certain level of certainty in the future,” Allison said. “That that investment in time and money is going to be worth it because it’s going to pay off.”

The loss of enrollment didn’t hold across the board. Northern Virginia Community College, for example, reported record enrollment in the fall and expects more growth this spring, said spokeswoman Hoang Nguyen. SCHEV analysts, along with state lawmakers, are also hopeful that new initiatives could boost enrollment in Virginia’s community colleges. 

One of the most significant pieces of legislation to pass during the 2021 General Assembly session was the G3 program — a campaign promise from Gov. Ralph Northam. The program will offer free or deeply subsidized tuition for low- and middle-income community college students preparing for in-demand professions.

But there’s also concern that lagging enrollment in community college could mean that vulnerable students are falling through the cracks. Virginia’s two-year schools often serve more at-need families, Allison said. Nationwide, there’s also been a significant drop in completion rates for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (better known as FAFSA) — particularly among Title I high schools that serve a high number of low-income students.

“Their completion rates are down more like 30 percent,” Allison said. “But I think there’s a lot of reasons to believe it’s our most vulnerable students who are not showing up.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.