Early enrollment estimates for Virginia colleges shows slight decline

While the pandemic has forced many universities and colleges to make changes in how classes are taught, enrollment in Virginia’s schools has not declined as much as some education analysts predicted.

The State Council on Higher Education for Virginia looked at 64 public and private nonprofit institutions and found that overall, enrollment for the fall semester only declined by 1.3% — a much smaller number than the 20% decline predicted by some analysts.

“These estimates are still preliminary and will change before final reports arrive later in the year, but it is safe to say that the situation is not as bad as some feared,” said Tod Massa, SCHEV’s director of policy analytics who wrote the analysis.

Public community colleges suffered the biggest drop at 9.7%.

Northern Virginia Community College saw its overall enrollment in fall drop 4.5%, compared with enrollment in fall 2019. NOVA had an enrollment of 49,500 students this fall and 51,821 students in fall 2019.

college enrollment graph for Virginia
The State Council on Higher Education for Virginia analyzed early enrollment for 64 public and private schools. (Courtesy SCHEV)

Overall, undergraduate enrollment is down 3.2% in Virginia.

Enrollment of new first-time students at public, four-year institutions declined 10%, from 37,700 in fall 2019 to 33,911 students this fall.

“Given that the total decrease in undergraduate student enrollment at these institutions was only 825, this means enrollment of existing students or new transfer students was up by 2,964 students,” SCHEV said.

George Mason University in Fairfax had 2.1% more undergraduate students in fall 2020, compared with fall 2019. Total enrollment this fall was 27,630, an increase of 576 students. Graduate enrollment increase 2.7%.

Undergraduate enrollment at University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg declined 4.8% to 3,981 in fall 2020.

In Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University saw a 14% decline in its freshman class compared to a drop of about 10% at other four-year public colleges and universities.

At private colleges and universities, SCHEV said enrollment increased by 77 students, or 0.5%. “Total undergraduate enrollment decreased 1.8%, or 693 students, suggesting that these institutions lost as many as 616 continuing students or enrolled fewer transfer students than in 2019,” SCHEV said.

Enrollment in graduate and professional programs, however, went up “primarily because of significant increases in graduate enrollment at Liberty University by non-Virginian students,” SCHEV said.

All of the enrollment numbers are expected to change once official enrollment numbers come
in next month, and it is still unclear how schools will be impacted during the spring semester if the pandemic continues to limit in-person learning and housing on campus.

“Higher education in Virginia is in uncharted waters,” SCHEV said. “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.”

Look up the enrollments of individual schools on the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia’s website.

WTOP’s Alejandro Alvarez contributed to this story.

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