Fall enrollment down nearly 10% at community colleges
Public four-year colleges hold steady; private universities down 6.6%
Early estimates indicate that fall enrollment at Virginia’s community colleges is down nearly 10% compared to fall 2019, and down by 6.6% at private four-year universities, according to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia in a study released Tuesday. However, public four-year universities are holding steady, with enrollment down by only 0.2%.
The overall enrollment at 64 colleges and universities statewide declined by 1.3%, or 6,658 students, compared to last year, according to SCHEV’s early enrollment estimates — far less than the predicted 20% decline due to the pandemic. However, final enrollment numbers will not be available until November.
According to SCHEV’s policy analytics director, Liberty University played a major role in propping up the state’s enrollment numbers at four-year private universities. Liberty’s total enrollment numbers, largely composed of online students, are now at 95,661, an increase of 11.8% since last fall.
Undergraduate enrollment at the state’s private and public nonprofit colleges and universities is down 3.2%, or 13,489, mainly due to lower enrollment at the state’s community colleges.
Tod Massa, SCHEV’s director of policy analytics, noted in the report that enrollment at two-year schools is more volatile than at their four-year counterparts. “Some courses don’t even open until November, so we might see some changes in their final numbers.” Lower-income students make up the majority of enrollment losses, according to the report, particularly in public institutions like Virginia State University, which is offering only virtual classes this fall. VSU’s total headcount this fall is down 12.8%, with 3,509 students enrolled, a 516-student decline since 2019.
“Significant numbers of their students may not have sufficient technology in their homes to succeed in remote education,” Massa wrote, conclusions supported by VSU officials and a SCHEV study of the state’s digital divide. Similarly, in regions with poor broadband access, lower-income students are less likely to enroll in online-only classes at community colleges, he added.
The state also saw a 1.9% decrease in out-of-state students at public four-year colleges, which means a decline in tuition revenue, since out-of-state students pay higher rates than in-state students. Other students are attending college part time, which similarly brings in less tuition money.
Graduate and first-professional enrollment are both up from last year, according to the report, with out-of-state enrollment in graduate-level courses at Liberty University representing much of the increase. The Lynchburg-based Christian university, which is one of the nation’s largest online universities, also saw a big increase in new students and overall undergraduate enrollment this fall, despite its recent leadership crisis.
Liberty saw a 7.6% increase in its undergraduate headcount, with 50,612 students enrolled this fall for both online and in-person classes, an increase of 3,587 compared to fall 2019. The number of graduate students rose 18% since last fall, an increase of 6,344 students to 41,604. First professional enrollment went up 4.4% since last year, with 3,445 students enrolled this fall, an increase of 144 students.
Former Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. resigned from the presidency and chancellorship in August after a series of scandals, capped by published allegations by a former business partner that Falwell and his wife, Becki, were involved in a sexual relationship with him for several years. Falwell, while acknowledging that his wife was involved with Giancarlo Granda, whom they met in Miami in 2012, has denied his own involvement and said that Granda tried to extort money from the couple. Granda denied those allegations.
The university, now led by interim President Jerry Prevo, has hired an outside firm to investigate Liberty’s finances, real estate dealings and other business during Falwell’s 13-year tenure.
“Higher education in Virginia is in uncharted waters,” Massa concluded in the report. “We see changes happening, but we have little solid data on these changes and urge readers not to leap to conclusions, but instead allow time for enrollment processes at the institutions to settle out and final enrollment data to be assembled and submitted.”