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College enrollment: Trouble signs

Sweet Briar College, an all-women’s school in rural Virginia, plans to close in August. (Photo by Al Cook.)

Which other colleges are in jeopardy?

The abrupt announcement Tuesday that Sweet Briar College will shut down this year, after a century of educating women, raises tough questions not only for that college in rural Virginia but also for small private institutions around the country (and maybe some that are public).

In late 2013, The Washington Post analyzed enrollment data for more than 80 colleges and universities in Maryland, the District and Virginia. That article and an accompanying chart of enrollment trends showed the challenges that several schools faced.

(See the December 2013 chart.)

The challenges turned out to be so severe that some schools on that chart folded. Virginia Intermont College closed. Corcoran College of Art & Design was taken over by George Washington University. National Labor College closed. Now Sweet Briar has announced it will close in August.

So what do the fall 2014 enrollment numbers tell us?

Here’s a quick first look. This is based on analysis of new data —  fall 2014 head counts — from the Maryland Higher Education Commission and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, as well as older data from the U.S. Education Department.

Among the private schools in Maryland and Virginia with significant one-year declines are these:

Sojourner-Douglass College in Baltimore: 699 students in fall 2014 (down 35 percent).

Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va.: 3,693 students (down 8 percent).

[Update: Shenandoah’s vice president for enrollment management, Clarressa Morton, said the decline is an aberration related to how officials tracked participation in a dual-enrollment program involving hundreds of local high school students. When those students are subtracted from the calculations, she said, Shenandoah’s enrollment is “stable" and has been for four years.]

Averett University in Danville, Va.: 1,983 students (down 8 percent).

Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Md.: 1,057 students (down 6 percent).

Capitol Technology University (formerly Capitol College) in Laurel, Md.: 795 students (down 6 percent).

Hampton University in Hampton, Va.: 4,397 students (down 5 percent).

Ferrum College in Ferrum, Va.:  1,451 students (down 4 percent).

Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore: 2,764 students (down 4 percent).

There are many possible reasons for enrollment declines, including economic cycles. In a shrinking economy, more people tend to seek higher education as a way to improve their job prospects. In an improving economy, that surge will typically recede. In 2013, a Hampton spokeswoman told The Post that the private school’s enrollment decline was the result of “a conscious decision” school officials made several years ago to reduce the student-faculty ratio. 

In addition, a few other schools bear watching because they are relatively small and their enrollment is lower than what it was three or four years ago. One of them is Hollins University (768 students, down from 1,024 in 2010).

There are also at least a few public colleges that face significant challenges. St. Mary’s College of Maryland, with 1,804 students, is down 3 percent compared to 2013. The University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, with 4,535 students, is down 6 percent, and its head count has fallen every year since 2010. Norfolk State University, in Virginia, with 6,027 students, is down 10 percent. Virginia State University, with 5,025 students, is down 13 percent.

On the flip side, some small colleges are growing. Bluefield in Virginia, with 947 students, is up 11 percent annually and has grown continuously since 2010.

Read also:

Sweet Briar College to close because of financial challenges.

Shock over Sweet Briar closure turns to determination to keep college alive