One of the big economic goals for the Roanoke and New River valleys is a demographic one — to persuade more young adults to live here as a way to replenish, and grow, a labor pool from which baby boomers are retiring.
To accomplish that, local governments — be they rural, suburban or urban, be they run by Republicans or Democrats — have made it a policy to invest in quality-of-life infrastructure, such as greenways and bike paths. Along with various economic development agencies, they’ve also set their sights on one of the region’s unique assets — an unusually high concentration of college students. The Roanoke Regional Partnership says “the region has a higher concentration of undergraduates per capita than the Boston-Cambridge, San Francisco-Oakland, Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill or Austin areas,” all of them important tech capitals. Can we persuade more of those students to stick around after graduation?
When Virginia Tech announced recently the school had reached its goal of enrolling 30,000 undergraduates three years ahead of schedule, that might have seemed an important milestone that would help the region further its demographic goal. The more students we have in the region, the more who are likely to stay here. We pointed out the inconvenient math: We added up the number of undergraduates at all the four-year schools in the Roanoke and New River valleys, and found the total number actually declined slightly — by 33 to be precise.
Well, that was then. This is now. Some updates to the enrollment figures filed with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia give us new figures — an increase of 103 undergraduates in the region. That’s better than a loss but, in context, doesn’t represent a big increase either — an increase of 0.2%. Still, given the pandemic, we’re surprised the overall numbers are that good because there had been dire predictions of an enrollment collapse. That hasn’t happened. In fact, undergraduate enrollment at both public and private four-year schools in Virginia has increased slightly this year — by 2,036 students, or just under 1%. It’s the community colleges where enrollment has declined, by 9.9%. In all, the total number of students being enrolled at Virginia colleges — two-year or four-year — is down 3.2%. That’s not good for a society that needs a more educated workforce, but that’s a topic for another day.
Instead, our topic here is the number of students coming into the Roanoke and New River valleys. Instead, of just focusing on undergraduates let’s widen our frame to include graduate students — because they’re here, too. Including graduate students gives us a truer picture of the size of each institution. Instead of seeing Radford University as a school with 7,305 students, we should really see it as a school with 10,456 students (some of whom are in Roanoke with the former Jefferson College of Health Sciences, now known as Radford University Carilion). Likewise, if you include graduate students, Virginia Tech passed the 30,000 mark a long time ago — its total enrollment is 36,515 (and higher when you add in some professional development programs but we’re trying to stay focused on traditional undergraduates and graduate students here).
Those numbers might give Blacksburg some heartburn; the town hasn’t been as keen on Tech’s growth as Tech has been (or other localities in the region have been). Blacksburg wonders where all those students will live; other localities don’t have to deal with those details. In any case, our goal here is to look at the overall region — and more students are a good thing. Except here’s the problem: When we include graduate students, the total numbers aren’t growing. Tech’s grad student enrollment is down 51 from a year ago, Radford’s is down 752. Hollins University’s graduate count is down 24. Roanoke College and Ferrum College don’t have graduate programs. In all, we’re down 827 graduate students — which means regionwide we’re down a total of 724 students from a year ago, from 51,442 to 50,718. That’s a drop of 1.4%. Maybe that’s not enough to worry about but still underscores our original point: Just because Virginia Tech is growing undergraduate enrollment doesn’t mean the region as a whole is growing the total number of students. Instead we’re just rearranging where those students are. Furthermore, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to grow that overall number because U.S. birth rates have been declining since 2008. That means there are fewer future college students in the pipeline.
We don’t mean to sound pessimistic, just realistic. Math is just math. If you’re looking for some happy numbers in all this, it’s in the number of graduate students we have. For communities our size, we have a lot — and that’s important not just demographically from a recruitment standpoint but because many of those graduate students are likely involved in the type of research that may power our economy. One grad student doing some kind of molecular research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute is probably worth, well, a whole lot of undergrads majoring in medieval poetry. (Hey, we like medieval poetry. And there’s not really a major in medieval poetry. We’re just trying to make a point).
Just how many grad students do we have? That’s not as easy to figure out as it might seem. Virginia Tech says it has 6,332; Radford has 3,151, Hollins has 106. (Ferrum has also started a graduate program). That’s a total of 9,589. However, not all of those are here. Some of Hollins’ grad students are only here for summer programs. Tech says 3,878 of its grad students are in Blacksburg and 91 are in Roanoke along with 670 in the Washington, D.C., area, 44 in Richmond and 27 in Hampton Roads. However, Tech this year counts 1,622 grad students as “virtual students,” so they could be anywhere. Some are probably here. Radford has 950. If we just count the Tech grad students we know are in the two valleys, then the total number of grad students in the two valleys comes in at 4,934. That’s more the undergrad enrollment of Roanoke College, Hollins University and Ferrum College put together. And it’s out of proportion to our population. For instance the colleges in Richmond have 5,922 grad students.
We’d be better off if we had more but that’s still a pretty good talking point.
Updated to include reference to Ferrum program.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!