Some D.C. area colleges grow in a volatile market

December 20, 2013

Growth signals success, and shrinkage spells trouble.

That’s a presumption often made about business and other ventures. It might not necessarily hold true for certain sectors of higher education. Many colleges prize stability, above all.

But in a volatile market, declining enrollment is usually a concern for colleges because it threatens tuition revenue. An article Friday in The Washington Post points out that 20 of about 80 four-year colleges in Maryland, Virginia and the District have lost at least 5 percent in total fall enrollment since 2010.

For the analysis, The Post constructed a sortable chart of total enrollment figures, including graduate, undergraduate, part-time and full-time students. The primary data sources for current enrollment were the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the Maryland Higher Education Commission and the colleges themselves.

The analysis did not include colleges in the for-profit sector, two-year colleges and several institutions with very small enrollment. It also omitted Saint Paul’s College, a private, historically black institution in southern Virginia, which announced in June that it was closing after years of steep enrollment declines.

The primary sources for enrollment in prior years — 2010, 2011 and 2012 — were the federal government’s College Navigator and the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System — and, in a few cases, the state agencies and colleges.

No enrollment sources are perfect. Numbers shift all the time. But the table reflects the best information publicly available.

Some colleges recorded notable three-year gains. The article pointed out growth at Liberty University, Radford University, Randolph College and the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Here is a recap of colleges that have expanded since 2010.

Eastern Virginia Medical School, a public institution (with some aspects of a private school as well), had 40 percent growth, to 1,090 students. National Labor College, a private college in Maryland with ties to the AFL-CIO, grew 31 percent, to 599. But it is closing next year because of heavy debt. Capitol College in Maryland grew 12 percent — although enrollment dipped this fall compared with last fall.

Bluefield College in Virginia grew 22 percent, to 851 students. Virginia Wesleyan College grew 15 percent, to 1,467. The University of Virginia’s College at Wise also grew 15 percent, to 2,291. And Regent University in Virginia grew 14 percent, to 5,945. Growth was also significant at Shenandoah University (9 percent) and Bridgewater College (9 percent), two private schools in Virginia.

Among women’s colleges, a sector under pressure, Trinity Washington University in the District grew 9 percent.

Among historically black universities, another sector with numerous enrollment drops, Bowie State in Maryland was notably stable. Its enrollment of 5,561 is little changed from 2010.

How do schools reverse enrollment declines?

An obvious answer is to cut prices. There are signs that some colleges are expanding discounts to lure students. But that is risky because discounts could subtract from the institution’s bottom line of net tuition revenue.

Another answer is to cut prices and cut expenses. That is also difficult for schools that promise a comprehensive educational experience, especially for schools with a primary mission of residential learning.

At Averett University, a private school in southern Virginia, enrollment is down 22 percent since 2010, to 2,144 students this fall. Averett spokesman Ed Jones said the university is launching several initiatives to resume growth. Among them are degree programs targeting working adults, online courses, blended courses with online and in-person instruction, transfer agreements with community colleges, fund-raising and marketing.

“The basic strategy is to be extraordinarily nimble and responsive to the changes in the higher ed marketplace — while remaining true to our mission as a private liberal arts university,” Jones wrote in an e-mail. “To embrace the ‘new normal,’ yet remain steadfast in our core values.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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