Independent colleges aim for healthy enrollment
One of Terrell Strayhorn’s first assignments as Virginia Union University’s provost was to win final approval for graduate programs seen as a key mechanism for enrollment growth.
It was the early months of the pandemic, he recalls, and the Richmond university was also “knee deep” in the reaffirmation of its accreditation process as it sought approval for eight new master’s degree programs.
Virginia Union — founded in 1865 as one of the first historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the nation — succeeded on all counts. And the programs, ranging from hospitality management to executive MBAs, boosted total enrollment to 1,688 last fall, VUU’s greatest number of students in the past five years.
The university’s diversification effort reflects the approach many of the state’s private, nonprofit institutions are taking to counter an enrollment cliff that threatens higher education in general but is felt most acutely by tuition-dependent liberal arts schools.
“The challenge was there prior to the pandemic, and the pandemic just accelerated the problem even more,” says Matthew Shank, president of the 16-school Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges and the former president of Arlington’s Marymount University.
Enrollment is “a hugely important issue” for private schools, which primarily depend on tuition to carry out their mission, Shank says. “When you take a dip in enrollment, even a small dip, it has a pretty big impact on your overall budget.”
And while the state’s public institutions saw an overall decrease in total enrollment during the past five years, independent colleges in Virginia posted a slight gain as a whole.
According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, 30 private, nonprofit schools statewide enrolled 148,672 degree-seeking students last fall, compared with 148,157 for fall 2020. But those figures also include 95,148 students enrolled primarily online at Liberty University in Lynchburg.
Overall enrollment for traditional liberal arts colleges has been mixed, says Robert B. Lambeth Jr., president of the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia Inc., which represents 27 schools. “Some institutions have fared pretty well, [while] others are down. But it’s no question the pandemic has disrupted the procedures.”
Independent colleges focus on personal attention to students, with recruitment beginning with campus visits for high school students.
“And during the pandemic that has been disrupted substantially, which has impacted upon our ability to recruit students in some cases,” Lambeth says.
Even before the pandemic, administrators were worried about demographic shifts that have decreased the pool of potential students and about escalating student loan debt that has families questioning the value of a degree.
And now, Strayhorn says, students are undergoing their own version of the “Great Resignation” that has roiled workplaces. “As we moved through the pandemic, students have changed and their behaviors have changed,” he says, and many are rethinking how they spend their time.
The pandemic accelerated VUU’s plans to move programs online, such as the university’s eMBA geared toward full-time employees, Strayhorn says. That presents its own challenge in keeping students connected to peers and faculty, especially at an HBCU that stresses personalized encouragement for students who are often the first in their families to attend college.
“It sounds cliché, but we’re working around the clock to figure out how to create a high-touch environment in a touchless time,” Strayhorn says.
VUU, long known for its graduate programs in divinity, is adapting its business model, he notes, “to develop a specific niche that aligns with our core values but also responds to the demand of the market.” A new focus on cross-listing classes means students in different graduate programs share courses in core competencies so that, for example, an eMBA class on finances could be taken by a hospitality management student or a theology student interested in financial management from a church perspective.
“It’s exciting to bring our students together in a way that I don’t know all schools have done, allowing us to be cost-efficient and good stewards of the resources we have,” Strayhorn says.
Storms on the horizon
Two national reports underscore the bleak financial outlook and enrollment challenges ahead.
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center in January reported that postsecondary enrollment dropped by 2.7% for fall 2021, with a total two-year decline of 5.1%, or 937,500 fewer students, since the beginning of the pandemic.
Undergraduate enrollment declined across all institution sectors nationally, with for-profit four-year schools showing the steepest percentage drop at 11.1%, or 65,500 students, from the previous year. At nonprofit private schools, undergraduate enrollment fell nationally by 2.2%, or 58,700 students, in the fall, according to the center.
Overall freshman enrollment stabilized, compared with the precipitous decline of fall 2020, the report said, but enrollment was 9.2% lower than pre-pandemic levels recorded in fall 2019, a decrease of 213,400 students. News was better at nonprofit private four-year colleges, with the number of freshmen enrolled rising by 2.9%, or 11,600 students.
While that’s good news, the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) reported that private, nonprofit colleges and universities provided grants, fellowships and scholarships to nearly half of all undergraduates in the 2020-21 academic year, which means a significant cut in the revenue the institutions would receive for full payments.
In NACUBO’s 2020 annual tuition discounting study, 361 institutions reported 53.9% of all first-time students and 48.1% of all undergraduates received tuition discounts last school year.
Some schools have tried to address this issue by resetting tuition rates. These include Randolph College and, more recently, Roanoke College, which has lowered fall 2022 tuition by 28%, from $46,510 to $33,510.
The schools want their posted tuition rates to reflect more closely what a student actually pays, Shank says, “so there’s not that sticker shock of seeing the tuition as out of the range” of affordability.
Lambeth says one purpose of campus visits has been to help explain financing to families who might see a private education as out of reach.
“Many families are surprised that the total cost of attending at private colleges is much more competitive, much closer to public college costs, but it takes some time to explain that,” he says. “It’s hard to do that on a Zoom call.”
In addition to institutional aid, undergraduates who are Virginia residents are eligible to receive a state-financed Tuition Assistance Grant, which this year was $4,000.
Schools are diversifying their offerings to compete with public institutions, Lambeth says. “We are strong believers in traditional liberal arts education, but we are also strong believers in providing newer programs and opportunities.”
Small liberal arts colleges have proven resilient, despite decades of predictions that they could not survive, says Sweet Briar College President Meredith Woo, whose institution represents a prime example.
In 2015, Sweet Briar’s alumnae thwarted the previous administration’s effort to close the college, a “catastrophic experience” that Woo, who took her current post in 2017, says set the women’s college apart from national trends. “We overcame tremendous challenges to move forward and are on an upward trajectory,” she says.
Sweet Briar’s enrollment was at 454 in fall 2021, and about 80 students are expected to graduate this spring. Woo projects the college will return to an ideal enrollment of 620 to 650 students during the next few years by building “on the strength of our tradition but molding it to take advantage of opportunities for women.”
The college’s core principles and programs are all built around women’s leadership, including an engineering program “without misogyny” and sustainable agriculture with 20 acres of vineyards and a 26,000-square-foot greenhouse.
The safe environment of a women’s college, Woo says, “is a very important distinctive niche” that 20 years ago might have been a hard sell. “It’s not a hard sell anymore.”
Another Virginia single-gender institution, the all-male Hampden-Sydney College, felt the impact of the pandemic on enrollment and recruiting, says President Larry Stimpert.
“The pandemic also coincided with a strategic shift toward increasing selectivity at Hampden-Sydney, which typically involves a temporary dip in enrollment,” Stimpert says. The men’s college enrolled 851 students last fall, down from more than 1,000 five years ago.
Stimpert is encouraged by the increases he’s now seeing in campus visits, applications and deposits. Plus, retention of last year’s freshman class exceeded 90%, the highest in the college’s history “and consistent with the retention rates at the very best private liberal arts colleges in the country.”
Shenandoah University has seen steady growth over the past few years, enrolling 4,287 students last fall. The Winchester university “did not see the pandemic as a pause in operations, planning, service or vision,” President Tracy Fitzsimmons said via email.
Shenandoah re-opened for in-person education and business in June 2020 and has “been operating in-person ever since.” At the start of the 2020-21 academic year, SU became one of the few universities in the country to perform its own COVID surveillance testing through its School of Pharmacy, according to Fitzsimmons.
The university is third in enrollment behind Liberty and Virginia Beach-based Regent University, which began the fall 2021 semester with 10,190 students and later added 196, a Regent spokesman says. About 82% are online.
The University of Richmond enrolled 3,898 students in the fall, a slight decrease that spokeswoman Cynthia Price attributes to the higher number of students studying abroad because they couldn’t travel in fall 2020. More than 200 Spiders went abroad this academic year, but counting those students, overall enrollment increased and was comparable to pre-pandemic levels, she says.
Across the country right now, Shank says, private schools that are highly selective and have a strong reputation nationally are doing very well in enrollment. “We have great diversity in our schools, and many have the capacity to grow enrollment, meaning that they have the seats available.”
While private for-profit schools as a sector have taken a hit in enrollment, that has not been the case for Virginia Beach-based ECPI University, says its president, Mark Dreyfus. “When you look at schools like ours that are very hands-on and focused on health care and information technology, we did not see that.”
ECPI, or East Coast Polytechnic Institute, opened in 1966 in Norfolk. It saw its enrollment increase by 5% during the first year of the pandemic, primarily among nursing and health care students, Dreyfus says. Enrollment is back to previous levels now.
ECPI reports 6,500 students enrolled in Virginia, with about 5,000 attending in person on eight campuses and the remainder online. The university also has campuses in the Carolinas, Florida and Texas and an overall enrollment of about 11,000 students.
Meanwhile, many for-profit giants are shutting down or cutting operations. The University of Phoenix, for example, closed its in-person locations in Virginia last August.
Dreyfus says global operations like that shouldn’t be grouped with smaller for-profit schools like ECPI that primarily offer vocational training. “We’re more career-side as opposed to the four-year online schools, and there’s a real difference,” he says. “It really is not the same kind of institution.”
He sees a clear reason why there are fewer four-year, for-profit schools than there were a decade ago.
“The accountability is much higher than it used to be,” Dreyfus says. “It’s a much different sector than it was, given that over the last 10 years there’s been so much more regulation and accountability.”
At a glance
Enrollment at private, nonprofit institutions
Total enrollment of degree-seeking students at 30 private, nonprofit institutions as reported to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia:
Fall 2021: 148,672
Fall 2020: 148,157
Fall 2019: 141,477
(Increase is largely due to enrollment gains at Liberty University, which grew from 85,586 in 2019 to 95,148 in 2021.)
SCHEV tracks enrollment at private, nonprofit schools whose students receive annual state Tuition Assistance Grants, which are not need-based. The amounts of individual awards are based on the number of eligible in-state students and funding appropriated by the General Assembly. For about 23,000 Virginia residents eligible this academic year, the grant is $4,000 for undergraduates and $2,200 for graduate students in health professions, according to the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia.
The amount has been reduced for remote programs. Effective fall 2021, new students enrolled in online or distance learning receive TAG awards of $2,000 for undergraduates and $2,200 for graduate-level health studies. Continuing students are eligible to receive the previous award of up to $3,400.
CARES Act and related funding
Private colleges and their students received a share of the federal funding that came to Virginia for pandemic relief. Of the more than $2.2 billion that was directed to Virginia higher education, $1.7 billion went to public institutions and $482.8 million went to private schools, according to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
Enrollment at public colleges and universities
Since fall 2017, total undergraduate enrollment declined by 7% at state-supported colleges and universities.
In-state undergraduate numbers dropped by 2,917 at the 15 four-year institutions and by about 23,400 students at 23 community colleges. Two-year Richard Bland College, a junior college in Petersburg, grew by more than 450 to 2,605 students.
Fall 2021: 368,766
Fall 2020: 376,786
Fall 2019: 383,864