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Virginia Schools Face Enrollment Declines During COVID-19

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A sign at the Parham Road Campus of J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College. The college has seen a 9% decline in enrollment during the pandemic. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Less new students enrolled in Virginia colleges and universities for the 2020-2021 school year, according to a new report. Despite this decline, total college enrollment has remained steady throughout the pandemic.

New student enrollment decreased by 8% since the previous year, according to a March report by the State Council for Higher Education of Virginia. Tom Allison, who oversaw the report, says the decline could spell trouble for the future.

“That could be a precursor to lower attainment rates in the future, threatening our ability to reach our goal of having 70% of the working age population in Virginia earn a college degree by 2030,” and have a negative impact on employers seeking skilled workers, Allison said.

While the number of new students decreased, the total number of students enrolled in Virginia colleges and universities remained flat from fall 2019 to fall 2020. That’s a stark contrast to nationwide trends; it’s estimated enrollment throughout the U.S. dropped by 2.5%.

“Big picture, statewide, things could have been much, much worse,” Allison said.

But when Virginia enrollment is broken down, it’s clear some schools fared better than others. Community colleges, for instance, saw significant enrollment declines. In total, community colleges lost 5% of their students, adding up to over 7,000.

Terricita Sass is the vice president of enrollment at J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond. She says the pandemic forced many students to leave school to focus on other priorities.

“Many of our students were frontline workers,” she said. “They were students who have children, and everything happened with the school system, and they didn't have resources for childcare. So work and school and helping their kids online — it was just too much to balance.”

Reynolds saw a 9% drop in students, with 1,400 less students this fall than in fall 2019. Sass says a disproportionate number of those were students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, who she says were left “devastated.”

With less students on campus paying tuition and fees, enrollment declines usually signal financial hardships for universities, but Sass says the federal stimulus packages have served as a good cushion during the pandemic. “We did not feel the brunt of that financial impact,” she said.

Allison says community colleges have traditionally seen enrollment increase during economic recessions, as people facing unemployment seek new marketable skills. But the recession that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic has been unique.

“In many ways, this is a departure from that 30-year trend. For the first time ever, the economy went down, but enrollment in community colleges went down too,” he said.

He says Virginia’s historically Black colleges and universities also saw significant enrollment declines during the pandemic. Based on SCHEV headcounts, Virginia State University lost more than 300 students, and Hampton University lost over 700.

One school that actually saw a significant enrollment increase during the pandemic was Liberty University. The private institution gained more than 7,000 students in the last year.

The SCHEV report found the pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black and Latino students. Their enrollment at Virginia universities dropped by 1% and 2% respectively, which is about 1,700 students combined.

“African American and Hispanic individuals in Virginia already have lower education attainment rates and enter college at lower rates, too. So we really need to be gaining ground there and not losing it,” Allsion said.

One group that saw an increase was Asian students. Enrollment jumped by about 5%, or nearly 1,900 students.