First Look at Early Enrollment Estimates
By Tod Massa, Director of Policy Analytics, SCHEV
The number of students enrolled in Virginia's public and private non-profit institutions this fall declined 1.3% or 6,658 students. While not something to celebrate, it is far better than the 20% decline predicted by some analysts last spring.
To provide a first look at how the fall semester is shaping up, SCHEV is releasing early enrollment estimates of the 64 public and private nonprofit institutions that report data to us.
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.
Undergraduate enrollment is down 3.2%, for a difference of 13,489 fewer students than last year. Most of this decrease is attributable to the community colleges, where enrollment is down nearly 10% across all public two-year institutions. However, students
go in and out of community colleges all year, and some courses don’t even open until November, so we might see some changes in their final numbers.
Graduate and first-professional enrollment are both up from last year, primarily because of significant increases in graduate enrollment at Liberty University by non-Virginian students.
Public four-year institutions enrolled 37,700 new first-time students in the fall of 2019. In the fall of 2020, the current estimate is 33,911 students, a 3,789 or 10% decrease. 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.
At the four-year, private nonprofit institutions, new first-time student enrollment in 2019 was 14,468. The current estimate for 2020 is 14,545 students, an increase of 77 students or half of one percent. Total undergraduate enrollment increased
3.4%, or 2,894 students, suggesting that these institutions gained more continuing students or enrolled more transfer students than in 2019 than they increased in new college students. All of this growth is attributed to Liberty University,
both in new students and overall undergraduate enrollment.
Based on what we know of the precarity of our lowest income students, including research from the Education Advisory Board showing declines in deposits from low-income students, and decreased completion rates of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), we believe low-income students may make up the majority of the enrollment losses. We see this especially in institutions like Virginia State University (VSU). VSU transitioned to exclusively online education for the fall, and significant numbers of their students may not have sufficient technology in their homes to succeed in remote education. These challenges were relayed to us by VSU officials and are also supported by SCHEV’s analysis of the Digital Divide in Virginia.
Community colleges, which serve large numbers of students in regions and localities with poor access to broadband, also enroll more students with fewer financial resources. Virginia’s private colleges also are not excluded from these issues, as many of them serve large numbers of financially disadvantaged students as well.
The early enrollment estimates also point to shifts in out-of-state and full-time enrollment, both of which could have an impact on institutional revenues. At the public four-year institutions, the number of out-of-state students is down 1.9% from last year, and those students pay higher tuition than in-state students. Also, as more students take less than a full-time load, those students will pay less tuition. Those students attending part-time also will take longer to graduate.
Higher education in Virginia is in uncharted waters. 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.
In November we will see the official enrollment submissions of the four-year institutions and Richard Bland College, and from community colleges in January. As these data come in, which are submitted at the student level, we will begin the process of
identifying who showed up and who did not. We will answer the following questions to the best degree possible.
- What were the differences in enrollment between new students and continuing students?
- How does the above compare to prior years?
- What student populations were most affected? Demographic groups (race/ethnicity, gender), Pell recipients, first generation (this only our second year collecting these data), first-year students from 2019, and other identifiable populations.
- Are students enrolling part-time in greater numbers? How might this affect academic progress?
- What are implications for institutional graduation rates and meeting the Commonwealth attainment goals in The Virginia Plan for Higher Education?
The SCHEV Early Enrollment Estimates (EEE) ask institutions to capture enrollment counts earlier in the year than the fall headcount collection, these counts become the official enrollment record for the fall semester. The primary challenge is that these
reports are due to SCHEV on a specific day and the actual semester start dates at the institutions vary by two to three weeks. This matters because the first two or three weeks of a semester are very much in flux as students are able add or drop classes
without penalty. Thus, for many of the institutions, the due date to SCHEV comes during this period of changing enrollment and can only provide preliminary estimates.
An additional consideration is that the community colleges have short terms within the semester, and for those courses that take place in the last half of the semester, some enrollments have not yet been made. Since VCCS enrollment is reported to SCHEV
as end-of-term data, the EEE generally shows a lower enrollment than what is reported at the end of the semester. (You can explore these trends at: https://research.schev.edu/enrollment/EEE5_Report.asp)