VCU reports slight enrollment drop amid pandemic

A VCU courtyard between the University Student Commons and Grace E. Harris Hall sits nearly empty on Oct. 13. Photo by Enza Marcy

Anya Sczerzenie, Staff Writer

More than 600 freshman students decided against attending VCU after receiving their acceptance letters –– a nearly 30% increase from the previous year ––  making first-year students the most significant part of an enrollment drop at the university during COVID-19. 

The number of accepted freshman applicants increased, but the portion of accepted freshmen who chose to enroll declined. In 2019, 29% of accepted students attended. For the fall 2020 semester, that dropped to 24%.

“There was an increase of 200 students who changed their minds,” Vice President for Strategic Enrollment Tomikia LeGrande said during a board of visitors meeting. “This was during the time when many universities were releasing their COVID plans, and also during the summer of civil unrest in Richmond.”

Nearly 15,000 freshmen were admitted last year, but that was bumped to more than 15,700 students this year. About 4,400 accepted freshmen packed their bags and headed to VCU last year, but in 2020 that dropped to about 3,800. 

According to information presented at a September board of visitors meeting, VCU’s student enrollment fell by 1,010 this year, totaling 29,093 students. Enrollment has trended downward since at least 2010, when the university bolstered more than 32,000 students. In less than 10 years and prior to the pandemic, it dropped by more than 2,000 students.

Infographic by Ni Sang. Source: YouGov

LeGrande said the university decided to accept more freshmen during the 2020-21 school year to offset an expected decline in enrollment.

“We realized early on that we needed to increase admitted students,” LeGrande said. “We were projecting an enrollment decline of 10%. Our enrollment was only down 2%, so still down, but a lot better than we could have been.”

LeGrande said this year’s freshman class was “uniquely vulnerable” because many graduated from high school during COVID-19. She said students who were planning to go to VCU, and then did not enroll, often cited safety concerns as their reason.

Enrollment for degree-seeking graduate students has increased, however, from 5,292 graduate students in fall last year to 5,507 during this semester.

Some freshmen who were surveyed about why they did not enroll cited finances, course modalities, acceptance at other schools and not feeling ready for college.

Olivia Stark, who was accepted by VCU, decided not to enroll in classes after seeing that all of them were online. She is currently taking a gap year and working full-time for a mortgage company.

“Online learning just isn’t my learning style, and I knew I wouldn’t do well in my classes,” Stark said. 

Stark said she had already been accepted to the school, paid her deposit and finalized her class schedule before deciding to take the gap year. She plans to either enroll at VCU next year or go to school internationally. 

During the board of visitors meeting on Sept. 18, LeGrande presented the university’s plan to increase enrollment and student retention. The plan includes increasing communication with prospective students’ parents and domestic out-of-state enrollment, as well as finding a way to show incoming students the campus when traditional college tours are out of the question.

“We won’t have the experiences our students are accustomed to, coming to VCU in large groups to get a feel for campus,” LeGrande said. “It will feel drastically different.”

VCU’s plan for increasing retention involves identifying students who are in danger of dropping out during their first and second years and providing them with additional support. LeGrande said the university plans to focus on supporting male students of color.

Freshman Alexa Sorrentino, who went into VCU with an undeclared major, said she had concerns about starting college during a pandemic, but decided to go after seeing VCU’s reopening plan that included entrance testing for residential students and daily health check procedures.

“I was a little afraid, but then I saw how VCU was going to handle it and it definitely helped,” Sorrentino said. “At first, that helped my decision to come to Richmond.”

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