Virginia Commonwealth University plans to increase enrollment by 2,700 students over the next five years, restoring the population to levels not seen in the past decade.
If VCU is able to reach its goal, it will have approximately 31,600 students by fall 2026, an increase of 9%, and more of them will be high-income international students.
More students means more revenue, which can fuel campus expansion, fund more financial aid for low-income students, and possibly stem the tide of rising tuition fees.
But the push comes at a time when competition for high school graduates is fierce, Virginia students are more likely to leave the state, and the number of graduates on the East Coast is stagnating.
And that comes on the heels of the pandemic, which has forced many low-income families to rethink whether to send their young adults to college or the workforce.
Over the past 10 years, enrollment at VCU has fallen 9% to approximately 29,000. The largest declines have occurred in the College of Humanities, which includes departments such as English, History, chemistry and physics.
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The student population has shrunk another 2% this year, which school president Michael Rao called the lingering effect of the pandemic on low-income students.
To reverse these trends, VCU intends to increase its number of international students and wishes to prevent more students already enrolled at VCU from leaving the university without a degree.
Only 14% of current VCU students come from beyond Virginia’s borders, a significantly lower percentage than the University of Virginia (42%) and the College of William & Mary (40%). But that’s higher than the percentages at other public schools, such as the University of Mary Washington (9%) and Christopher Newport University (6%).
VCU’s goal is to increase its out-of-state percentage to 17%.
Two single-story retail stores on West Grace Street at Virginia Commonwealth University in…
North Carolina, Maryland, and New York have large numbers of students interested in leaving the state for college, and these are the markets VCU will tap into first.
The program that VCU believes can best sell to out-of-state students is its School of the Arts, which is VCU’s most prestigious undergraduate program. VCU is planning a $181 million arts building at the intersection of West Broad and North Belvidere streets to enhance the school’s attractiveness and capabilities.
The second way to increase enrollment is to prevent VCU students from leaving without a degree. Currently, 84% of students stay past their first year, and 75% stay past their second. VCU is aiming to take those numbers to 90% and 80% respectively.
Money is often the reason students leave early. If students incur an expense, they often decide they can no longer afford the school. If VCU can provide these students with better financial aid, they believe they can retain more of them. Just 1% growth in retention nets $800,000 in tuition, the university said.
This year, VCU received 19,000 freshman applications and planned to offer admission to 16,500 of them. If 26% of proposed students accept, VCU will enroll a freshman class of 4,400 next fall.
The more students that attend, the more revenue the school receives. For every percentage point of undergraduate enrollment growth, the university receives $2.7 million in tuition revenue.
Out-of-state students pay significantly more than in-state. In-state students pay about $15,000 per year in tuition and fees, and out-of-state students pay $36,000.
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Additional revenue can stem the tide of tuition increases – VCU has proposed raising tuition between 3% and 6%, and its board will vote on tuition next month. And it helps increase financial aid – the university has recently increased its financial aid offerings each year.
More students can mean more funding from the state, and it helps the university to erect new buildings. VCU has more than $1 billion in construction projects for the next six years, some paid for by the university, some by the state.
But the competition for high school graduates is intensifying. Southeast colleges are increasingly targeting Virginia graduates, who have the financial means to leave the state. Virginia high school graduates are more likely to choose out-of-state colleges than graduates from other southeastern states.
In 2011, 14% of high school graduates tied to the University of Virginia chose out-of-state schools, according to the Virginia State Board of Higher Education. By 2019, that number had risen to 17%. West Virginia University, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of South Carolina are the most common out-of-state destinations. The University of Alabama and the University of Tennessee are also popular choices.
Nationally, college has become less attractive since the pandemic. College enrollment fell 7% between 2019 and 2020. In Virginia, some schools felt the crunch, while the state’s most prestigious schools, such as UVA, Virginia Tech, and William & Mary, felt the squeeze. continued to thrive.
The number of high school graduates on the East Coast is stagnating, and the total number of high school graduates nationwide is expected to decline after 2025 and continue to decline for a decade.
Another way to increase enrollment is to find more first-generation students — those whose parents and grandparents did not attend college. VCU already caters to first-generation and low-income students, but UVA and Virginia Tech have indicated they will pursue these students further as well.
“The problem is – there is more competition for them,” said Tomikia LeGrande, vice president of strategy, enrollment management and student success, at the VCU Board of Visitors meeting on last month.
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VCU is increasing its online offerings, but it’s not a quick and easy route to more revenue, LeGrande said. VCU will offer 18 new online programs in the fall and plans to continue offering a mix of in-person and online training.
Online education requires investment, and universities need to find their niche in the types of programs they can offer students.
“This can’t just be a Zoom conference,” LeGrande said.
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