Reflecting national trends, total enrollment at Virginia’s public colleges and universities dropped this academic year in the first year-to-year decline since 1994.
Virginia Tech, however, bucked the trend and slightly gained enrollment, passing Virginia Commonwealth University to become the second-largest public university in the state.
Enrollment dipped at eight of the state’s 15 four-year institutions, including Virginia Commonwealth, which was once the largest public university and is now in the third spot.
Total head count for public four-year schools fell 0.4 percent to 213,718 students from 214,667 in fall 2013, according to a report by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
George Mason University, which remains in the top spot with 33,791 students, also saw a slight enrollment drop of 126 students. But Virginia Tech edged VCU for the No. 2 spot as its enrollment climbed to 31,224 from 31,205.
Enrollment at VCU slipped to 31,163 from 31,288. A rise in the number of undergraduates did not offset a drop of about 440 graduate students.
However, 31 private, nonprofit schools in Virginia saw enrollment gains, rising to 135,591 from 131,910. Private enrollment is higher than it has ever been, even with the closure of Virginia Intermont College, SCHEV reports.
Liberty University provided “the lion’s share of the enrollment at 81,459 students representing approximately 61 percent of private college enrollment in Virginia,” according to the report by Tod Massa, SCHEV’s director of policy research and data warehousing.
The enrollment figures count all students enrolled for academic credit, including those studying online and part time.
The staff report will be presented Monday to the State Council, which in October received a preview of the fall head count numbers that showed total public enrollment, including two-year colleges, dipped below 400,000 this fall for the first time since 2008.
Although Monday’s report does not include two-year programs, SCHEV numbers show a steep overall drop in public enrollment. Including four-year and two-year programs, enrollment fell from 405,195 students in 2013 to 369,784 this fall.
SCHEV Director Peter Blake, noting that community college enrollment boomed during the recession, said the dip is cyclical.
“As the economy improves, you go get a job,” he said.
According to the SCHEV report, the enrollment drop at the eight public schools was offset by gains of 1,287 students at the remaining seven, resulting in a net loss of 949 students.
While some states have reported notable enrollment declines resulting from a “significant softening of higher education enrollment demand,” the SCHEV report says, enrollment at Virginia public four-year institutions “seems merely to have leveled off.”
Although undergraduate enrollment was up slightly in Virginia, graduate numbers have declined steadily at public schools since a record high in 2009-10, the report says.
Also decreasing is the separate category of first professional enrollment, which includes degree programs for legal and health-related careers. The report attributes the decline to “the lowest level of enrollment in Virginia’s law schools at public institutions in the past 23 years.”
Current enrollment of 2,113 is the result of annual decreases since an all-time high of 2,583 in 2007-08 at public law schools. The previous lowest enrollment of 2,277 was in 2000-01, the report says.
Private schools surpassed public institutions in the number of graduate students and first professionals.
Collectively the private schools enrolled 39,954 graduate students and 7,438 first professionals, compared with 39,669 and 4,930, respectively, in public programs.
Again, the short answer for that is Liberty, Massa said by email. “Liberty accounts for 28,710 graduate students, or 72 percent of the private total, and 3,005 first professional students, or 40 percent of the private total.”
Liberty’s overall enrollment growth “over the past decade is phenomenal,” he said. “Many of these students are distance students from all over the country, if not the world.”
Besides VCU and GMU, the other public schools with enrollment drops were Christopher Newport, Norfolk State, Radford University, the University of Mary Washington, University of Virginia’s College at Wise and Virginia State University.
NSU and VSU, both historically black universities, saw the largest drops at 10.4 percent and 12.8 percent, respectively, which the schools have blamed on changes in federal student loan requirements that prohibited many students from returning to school this fall.