Huge Swings in Student Populations Among Virginia’s 4-year Public Colleges and Universities Have Consequences

University of Mary Washington

by James C. Sherlock

I have previously in this series on Virginia’s public institutions of higher learning (IHE’s) used the term “cannibalization” to describe some getting bigger and some getting smaller, a few much smaller, in terms of student populations.

I will here provide the numbers to back that up.

While the total undergraduates dropped 1.5% (minus 2,572) in the system between the fall of 2018 and the fall of 2022, the increase in graduate students (plus 3,604) made up for it and the total campus population changed 0.4%.

Basically flat.

But those system numbers mask huge swings in student populations, both undergraduate and total, among the 15 schools. The data compiled in that spreadsheet are sourced from the State Council on Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV).

The trends have enormous consequences for Virginia’s 4-year colleges and universities, both those that are growing and those that are shrinking.

The same trends have easily predicted consequences for Virginia students if not reversed.

Biggest Losers.  The big losers in percentage of undergraduate students over that 5-year period were:

  • Longwood University — minus 37%
  • Radford University — minus 32%
  • University of Mary Washington — minus 26%
  • UVA College at Wise — minus 19%
  • VCU — minus 13%
  • VMI — minus 12 %

Eight of the 15 lost undergraduates. The largest losses:

  • Virginia Commonwealth minus 2,726
  • Radford minus 1,918
  • Longwood minus 1,170
  • ODU minus 997
  • UMW minus 917

In total student loss percentages, the largest were:

  • Mary Washington lost graduate students as well as undergraduates, and lost 26% of its total student population in just five years;
  • Radford increased graduate students as well, but was still down 21% overall;
  • Longwood increased its number of graduate students to get its total losses down to 13%.

In total student numbers:

  • VCU — minus 2,668
  • Radford — minus 1,617
  • ODU — minus 1,069
  • UMW — minus 970
  • Longwood — minus 553

Biggest winners.

The winners in percentages of undergraduates:

  • Norfolk State — plus 12.7%
  • Virginia Tech — plus 8.6%
  • Virginia State — plus 7.3%
  • William and Mary — plus 6.2%

In total numbers of undergraduates:

  • Virginia Tech — plus 2,623
  • George Mason — plus 1,028
  • Norfolk State — plus 677
  • UVa — plus 581

In percentages of total students:

  • Norfolk State — plus 10%
  • Virginia Tech — plus 8.7%
  • William and Mary — plus 8.7%
  • Virginia State –plus 5.7%

In numbers of total students:

  • Virginia Tech — plus 3,320
  • George Mason — plus 1,930
  • UVa — plus 1,240


Perhaps the only thing all of those schools have in common is in-state tuition for Virginia students. But that is a big one. Many kids are told by their parents that, absent scholarships, they needed to go to a state school.

Among the winners, all increased capacity in the face of flat demand. The result has been cannibalization, whether intended or not.

  • Virginia Tech filled its swollen capacity, even using motel rooms to house some undergrads one year while new dorms were finished;
  • Ditto UVa, whose undergraduate population increase was exceeded by its increase in grad students;
  • George Mason has a lot of commuter students, so increased housing might not be as big a factor there, but they needed the classroom space and instructional staff for the swollen numbers.

Bottom line.

The state cannot order students to go to a particular school.

If we want those shifts to continue and gain momentum, the Commonwealth need do nothing.

But we all need to understand that tuition will continue to go up to match the higher costs at the expanding schools. The investments already made into the shrinking schools will continue to lose value.

That will continue to bring with it the consequences to accessibility and to the social and economic costs of student debt.

If Virginia wants to save its smaller state schools, it will need to take action to make them more attractive. Earlier today I offered for consideration a magnet school concept for the smaller schools. There may be better ideas.

But Virginia needs to choose.

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10 responses to “Huge Swings in Student Populations Among Virginia’s 4-year Public Colleges and Universities Have Consequences”

  1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    Virginia State University is offering free tuition to eligible local students.
    To qualify a student must:
    Complete the VSU online application and submit high school transcripts
    Have a completed FAFSA on file with VSU
    Be a full-time Pell eligible student (based on FAFSA data)
    Live within 25 miles of campus

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      So today’s RTD had a headline about VCU’s “record” freshman enrollment.

      Read into the story and it says actually it will be among the largest classes enrolled….same kind of intentionally misleading headline BS they use on the climate alarmism lies.

      And if indeed Norfolk State and Virginia State are growing that rapidly, there’s an untold story there, one that will make it way, way harder for the other non-premier schools to achieve any increases in minority enrollment. Resegregation underway?

      1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
        James C. Sherlock

        The RTD story also says that “Notably, VCU remained the sole large college within the state that did not experience growth.”

        So losing 2700 students in 5 years is now touted as “not experiencing growth”.

        I’ll remember that next time I check my brokerage statement.

        1. Stephen Haner Avatar
          Stephen Haner

          The headline writers are not in Virginia. May not be in U.S.

        2. walter smith Avatar
          walter smith

          If you can stomach the torture of listening to Ian Baucom at an Executive Committee meeting of the Faculty Senate, you can hear “under flourishing.”
          I also got to hear Liz Magill say “Follow the science” and many other wonderful things from various UVA factotums.

      2. Kathleen Smith Avatar
        Kathleen Smith

        Good point unless the students at the traditionally Black universities are not Black

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Locally, in the “Burg”, we’ve always had the impression that Mary Washington College was attractive to women from outside of Virginia in the northeast, like New Jersey and such.

    Don’t know the numbers.. Don’t know where the shortfall is but it was reported in the FLS awhile back with some thinking it was related to covid.

  3. Convert some of the shrinking schools into ‘regional campuses’ of the expanding schools?

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      That might work. But the shrinkage of UVa’s Wise campus is a cautionary tale.

      It will be interesting to see what Tech and UVa’s headlong expansions to support the Google people in Northern Virginia will bring. But that won’t help the struggling schools.

      1. Virginian78 Avatar

        UVA-Wise has a new Vice Chancellor for Admission and his efforts have been dynamic! UVA-Wise has an all-time record enrollment this fall. Both categories of incoming freshman and transfer are well beyond anything previously seen. I will know exact numbers this Friday when the College Board meets but housing has been overwhelmed…the best problem a small college can have!

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