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Virginia's college enrollment steady while nation lags behind

Blake: 'Most Virginians still see the value in higher education'
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Posted at 4:55 PM, Oct 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-29 18:26:16-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Tracy Brower leads a team at RVA Future Centers who support Richmond Public School students with their plans after graduating.

“There’s a mix of emotions. It just depends on the day really when you talk to the teenager,” Brower said about his discussions with students. “Students are concerned about if they’re even prepared or ready to go to school.”

More than a year and half in this pandemic and Brower continues to hear from students who express hesitancy regarding their post-secondary education.

“They have stressed some concern about the value of college, like is it worth it from a financial point of view,” he explained.

A new report released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center revealed the number of undergraduate students in college had decreased 6.5 percent nationwide compared to pre-pandemic numbers.

Peter Blake serves as director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV).

“The reports of people massively fleeing higher education did not manifest themselves here in Virginia,” Blake said. “Many Virginians, most Virginians still see the value in higher education.”

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While the nation lags, the Commonwealth sits in a better position.

Virginia’s college enrollment numbers have remained steady, but SCHEV recognizes that lower students are less likely to choose college compared to previous years.

“It’s still expensive to go to school in Virginia. Those are policy choices we have made over time,” Black explained. “Corresponding policy choice we’ve made is to invest heavily on need-based financial aid.”

Blake touted the Commonwealth as having one of the largest, most robust need-based programs at public institutions in the nation. Programs like the Free Application for Free Student Aid or FAFSA has helped mitigate the impact particularly on low-income students.

“Are we doing enough to manage costs and provide financial aid? Probably not,” Blake answered.

SCHEV’s Director of Policy Analytics Tod Massa said the state has also seen a drop in women who choose to seek their two- or four-year degree.

Massa noted that some schools, like Liberty University, are seeing big bumps in some areas of enrollment along with the shift to hybrid and distance education.

“That’s not particularly surprising,” Massa stated. “A fair enough of students will stop out for a semester or two and come back, so even with the decreases we are seeing now that may not be permanent.”

Richmond Times Dispatch reported on Tuesday that Radford University saw a 25 percent decrease in enrollment. RU is a school that typically sees a high interest among low-income students.

Liberty University experienced a 14 percent boost in enrollment.

Meanwhile, Brower acknowledges that not every student needs to go to college to succeed. RPS' technical center helps prepare teenagers for trade fields like welding, automotive, and healthcare.

Local, state and national scholarships are available for graduating students who apply. Yet, outside influences during this pandemic do have an impact.

"There are also concerns about things going on in their household. Students do talk about how those things can impact what their decisions going to be. If a parent lost a job during the pandemic," Brower said.

SCHEV’s leadership sees Virginia’s higher education system as one of the best in the nation that will continue to survive as some states consolidate or shut down schools.

“The colleges will still be here when they’re ready to come back,” Massa said.