The number of students enrolled in the Eastern Panhandle’s Blue Ridge Community and Technical College plummeted 2,500 from last fall to this fall, down to about 3,300 — a 43% drop.
That drove the lion’s share of the 2,700-student, 17% statewide enrollment decrease at West Virginia’s public community colleges, which now have 15,900 total students.
These numbers exclude high schoolers taking courses through these colleges.
Leslie See, Blue Ridge’s vice president of enrollment management and health sciences, attributed the drop there to COVID-19.
In an email, she said the state’s previous shelter-in-place order meant “all campus and onsite workforce development training immediately shifted to remote or stopped altogether.” She said companies and faculty shifted focus to creating personal protective equipment and other needs.
She didn’t answer follow-up questions. Blue Ridge’s student enrollment remains the highest among the community colleges, by far.
BridgeValley, which has campuses in South Charleston and Montgomery, saw its enrollment actually increase 1%, to 1,800. Huntington-based Mountwest saw an 11% drop, to 1,300.
The decline comes despite the fact that West Virginia offers free community college tuition for many programs.
Overall, West Virginia colleges shifted much of their education online amid the ongoing pandemic, perhaps creating an obstacle or disincentive for some people to continue their educations here.
Looking at four-year public colleges, there was a smaller drop — 1,500 students, or 3% — from last fall to this fall, bringing statewide enrollment at those down to 54,000.
Most of that drop was attributable to the state’s two largest universities: West Virginia University and Marshall. WVU System campuses lost 700 students, and Marshall lost 500 students.
Shepherd University lost 400 students, bringing its enrollment down to 3,000.
Chris Treadway said over 300 of those lost were part of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program for employees to take classes, which couldn’t happen this year. A Shepherd spokeswoman just attributed the drop to the pandemic broadly.
These figures come from two reports from the state’s higher education oversight and policy agencies.
Treadway, research and policy senior director for the agencies, noted changes this year in measuring community college enrollment complicate the comparison of those schools’ numbers from last fall to this fall.
Among the students newly excluded from the count this year: those just in internal professional development courses or community education programs.
“It’s, again, a little difficult to make direct comparisons because some of the decline — not a lot, but some of it — is attributed to the fact that we’ve excluded some specific programs from our data reporting,” Treadway told state Community and Technical College System board members Thursday.
But Treadway suggested most of the decrease was due to the pandemic.
Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the agencies, proffered some reasons why.
“The work that the (community) colleges do, and have historically done, with business and industry to retrain and retool their employees isn’t happening right now,” Tucker said. “Employers aren’t having their employees go to a college and do that type of retraining right now for fear of COVID.”
Treadway said Blue Ridge had most of these “workforce” students.
Tucker also said that adult part-time students may not have enrolled because they have kids attending K-12 schools virtually — among other pressures from COVID.
The community college enrollment drop for those under 25, not including high schoolers, was 6%, compared to 27% for those 25 and older.
On the bright side for the community colleges, the number of first-time freshmen decreased just 6%, to 2,800, this fall, about a third the rate of the overall decline.
At the public four-year colleges, first-time freshmen enrollment dropped 5%, to 9,900.
Most four-year colleges actually saw increases in this area, but the statewide first-time freshmen drop was driven by a 9%, 500-student loss at West Virginia University.
That decline excludes the 15% drop at Potomac State College of WVU and the 12% drop at the WVU Institute of Technology. The only non-WVU System four-year public colleges to lose first-time freshmen enrollment were Marshall University, which lost 3%, and West Liberty University, which lost 11%.
Contributing to the overall enrollment declines at WVU and Marshall were their losses of international students. WVU saw its international enrollment drop by 24%, down to 1,400, and Marshall’s dropped 35%, to 300.
Only one other public four-year school has over 100 international students: West Virginia State University, which now has 200, four times what it had last fall.
Treadway showed projections that the number of West Virginia high school graduates won’t change much in the coming decade.
“That population of students is not going to grow for us, so we either need to capture more of those students if we hope to increase our enrollment or look for other populations, such as adult students, who for example might be interested in pursuing a postsecondary education,” he told the community college board members.
Tucker continued to raise concerns about future enrollment, noting the drop in completions of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and applications for the state’s signature Promise Scholarship.
As of Thursday, her agencies said they had received 4,600 fewer Promise applications than this time last year, and 1,700 fewer high schoolers had completed the FAFSA.
Completing the FAFSA is generally required to access the free community college tuition program or apply for Promise.