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Community college enrollment rises in Virginia but remains below pre-pandemic levels

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Community college enrollment rises in Virginia but remains below pre-pandemic levels

Nov 28, 2023 | 12:02 am ET
By Nathaniel Cline
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Community college enrollment rises in Virginia but remains below pre-pandemic levels
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J. Sargent Reynolds Community College in Henrico. (NBC12)

More Virginia students have been taking a full course load at community colleges over the past year, but enrollments are still short of pre-pandemic levels, according to data collected by the Virginia Community College System. 

Data shows a 3.36% increase in enrollment statewide from fall 2022 to fall 2023, an increase that VCCS officials attribute to FastForward, a short-term career credential training program launched by the state in 2016. That program’s enrollment rose by over 21%.

The rise in student numbers “is really good news because community colleges all over the country had been struggling … and so I think it’s reassuring to see the numbers up,” said David Dore, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, community colleges in Virginia have experienced a downward trend in enrollment.  

This year, they attracted 2,757 new students, to reach a total enrollment of 82,423. However, enrollment is down 16% from the 98,857 students who signed up for classes in 2018.

According to recent budget reports presented to the General Assembly’s money committees this November, drops have also been seen across Virginia’s universities and colleges. While legislative staffers noted total enrollments for public four-year and two-year institutions have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, they said undergraduate numbers increased slightly from fall 2022 to fall 2023 but varied by institution.

Dore said some factors that could have led to increased community college enrollment are the schools’ more flexible schedules and offerings, which may attract new majority — or nontraditional — learners such as working adults, and new partnerships the community college system has forged with various industries.

Eastern Shore Community College had the largest enrollment change, rising by 11.3%, followed by Mountain Empire and Wytheville community colleges, which each saw enrollment increase by around 10%. On the other end of the spectrum, Virginia Highlands and Virginia Peninsula community colleges saw their enrollments dip by 1%.

On Wednesday, VCCS will host the first of several summits to bring together representatives of key industry sectors, particularly those with some of the largest skills gaps and talent needs throughout Virginia, and college leaders. The first summit will focus on health care.

“I’m excited about these summits in terms of really getting better alignment with the business and industry needs throughout the commonwealth of Virginia,” Dore said.

Dore said VCCS has the capacity to accommodate the larger pool of new students in “traditional classrooms.” However, he said the system may face challenges in creating new spaces for specialized programs in such areas as clinical placements, advanced manufacturing, information technology and cybersecurity.