The number of first-time freshmen in West Virginia’s public community colleges jumped 10 percent from last fall to this fall, the first semester in which the state has offered its free tuition program for those colleges.
In another bright spot, the overall number of high-schoolers taking courses through the nine public community colleges surged 27 percent. The number increased from about 430 to 1,000 at West Virginia University at Parkersburg.
“We’ve actually gone out and deliberately built, throughout our main catchment area, deliberate relationships with principals and guidance counselors,” WVU-Parkersburg President Chris Gilmer said. He said the school is using seven early-college models.
Individual community colleges saw vast differences in how many first-time freshmen they gained, or, in a couple cases, lost.
There were 5 percent losses at Southern and WVU-Parkersburg, which also has a Ripley location.
On the other hand, there was a 24 percent increase at New River, which has campuses in Southern and Southeastern West Virginia, and a 38 percent jump at BridgeValley, which has a South Charleston campus and one at the edge of Kanawha and Fayette counties.
“The WV Invests has been very popular,” said Crystal Berry, a BridgeValley spokeswoman, using the proper name of the free tuition program. “BridgeValley was lucky enough to get out in the forefront of that.”
Jennifer Aries and Berry are employees of 25th Hour Communications Inc., which BridgeValley contracts with for communications. Aries also cited her company’s work and the college’s program offerings for the increase.
Collectively, community colleges saw 3,020 first-time freshmen this fall, the highest since 2016, when there were about 3,290. West Virginia’s overall population and college-going rates have been decreasing year after year.
Sarah Tucker, the top administrator of the education oversight agencies, said it would be difficult to determine how much of the first-time freshmen surge is due to the free tuition program, which the Legislature and Gov. Jim Justice passed earlier this year through Senate Bill 1.
It would be hard to know who would have attended college anyway without the program, but data Tucker’s staff provided showed 1,300 of the 3,020 first-time freshmen this fall applied for the program, and 380 of those applicants received money through it.
And even if an applicant for the free tuition program didn’t receive money through that program, they may have gone to college without paying tuition anyway. That’s because the program requires applicants to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and filling that out would show many students that already-existing federal and state grant money means community college is often tuition-free for them anyway.
Looking at the more than 5,000 applicants, not just the first-time freshmen applicants, about 1,200 applicants went tuition-free in this manner. That’s more than the 1,000 applicants who actually ended up receiving money through the program.
“When the free community college bill was going around last legislative session, I said repeatedly that I thought there would be a number of students who would otherwise not go to college who would suddenly think to themselves ‘I can go to college now because it’ll be free,’ ” Tucker said.
She said a continuing survey of West Virginia high-schoolers shows that the perceived cost of college is their No. 1 barrier to entry, and “they’re not filling out the FAFSA and they’re not learning whether or not that is accurate.” She said a few states have begun requiring all students to fill it out.
Full-time equivalency can be used to broadly compare colleges’ enrollment over time and with one another, because it accounts for the fact that colleges have high school, part-time and full-time students. The calculation counts 15 credit hours being taken as one full-time equivalent student.
Despite the increases in first-time freshmen and high school course-takers, full-time equivalent community college enrollment only increased 2 percent, to about 11,000.
At the state’s four-year public colleges, which generally don’t get to benefit from the free tuition program, full-time equivalent enrollment dropped 2 percent from last fall to this fall, to hit 54,200 in total. Concord University, in Southern West Virginia, saw the greatest drop, 8 percent, to hit 1,690.
“I think we’ve lost more jobs in this part of the state,” Concord President Kendra Boggess said. “I just think it’s a harder market down here.”
The overall full-time equivalent enrollment drop for four-year schools is despite a 23 percent surge in high-schoolers taking four-year courses, including jumps of about 68 percent at Fairmont State University, Glenville State College and Shepherd University.
First-time freshmen at four-year colleges dropped 2 percent. International student enrollment is down 8 percent, affecting the WVU and Marshall University systems.
“Four-year institutions are doing a great job of increasing the number of [high school] students who are in dual enrollment,” Tucker said. But she noted that, after they graduate from high school, less than half are joining those same colleges they took courses through.
“If we start thinking about putting [high school] students into programs, rather than just putting them into courses,” she said, “then we get students finished more quickly, our college-going rate up and more students ready to enter the workforce.”