CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Overall student enrollment in the state’s colleges and universities dropped by 2.8% from fall 2019 to fall 2020, the state Higher Education Policy Commission learned Friday.
State Higher Education Chancellor Dr. Sarah Armstrong Tucker said that’s not too bad when you consider the challenges the pandemic has created.
“We had a lot of uncertainties going into this fall semester. Working closely together, our college and university presidents made the decision to bring students back to campus, but in the safest possible way,” Tucker said. “While we saw some enrollment declines, I am encouraged by the fact that so many in-state students are continuing their education. Now, we have to start looking further ahead to help more West Virginians do the same in the coming years.”
There are 59,387 students enrollment in colleges and universities this fall. That number was 62,145 last year.
Most colleges and universities said their decreases came in out-of-state and international student enrollments.
But there’s a more disturbing number for Tucker that was also reported Friday. The state has for a fifth straight year seen a decline in first-time freshmen enrollment from West Virginia students. This year’s drop is 5.4%.
“That is headed in the wrong direction,” Tucker told MetroNews. “We need that number to be going up for lots of reasons. Not just for the health of the institutions but for the health of our communities and the health of our state.”
Tucker said unfortunately the data doesn’t reveal where those high school graduates are going. Tucker said it’s likely some are joining the military while others are getting jobs that pay above minimum wage. She said the information currently isn’t available.
Tucker said she is hopeful a new closer relationship between HEPC, the Council for Community and Technical Colleges and the state Department of Education will help improve that in-state freshmen enrollment number.
“It is my hope that we will be seeing several career pathways put in place between K-12 and higher ed and an increased push on all of our parts to make sure that our students know what their post-secondary options are and what they matriculate on,” she said.
Tucker said those pathways need to include earning real credit hours toward real degrees while in high school.
In connection with overall enrollment, Tucker said the state’s colleges and universities will be able to handle the decreases financially. There was some concern a few months ago that significant enrollment drops could cause drastic results for some schools. Tucker said it’s more than about finances though.
“It’s not just about those schools but it’s about our citizens and about the economy,” Tucker said. “We know that folks who were most able to keep their jobs during this pandemic, those who were able to transition into a virtual work world were significantly more likely to have post-secondary credentials particularly a baccalaureate degree.”