There were declines of 5 percent at two private schools with a historic focus on educating women: Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., and Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore, according to figures from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
There were declines of 7 percent at private McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., and 8 percent at private Ferrum College in Southwestern Virginia. At Virginia State and Norfolk State, two historically black universities, there were declines of 7 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
Several factors influence enrollment fluctuations from year to year. One of the biggest is the economy. Rising unemployment tends to push more adults into college as they seek to improve their job prospects. Falling unemployment has the opposite effect, siphoning adults out of higher education and into the labor market.
College enrollment nationwide ebbed this year as the national unemployment rate fell to 5 percent in November. The National Student Clearinghouse reported in December that there were 19.3 million college students in the fall, down 1.7 percent from the previous year. Enrollment declines were heaviest in community colleges and for-profit colleges.
Also contributing to enrollment ups and downs are circumstances in certain sectors of the market and, of course, at individual schools.
College officials said Thursday that about 400 alumnae are visiting college fairs at high schools from coast to coast to hunt for prospective students, touting Sweet Briar’s programs in engineering, business and environmental science as well as its close-knit residential community. The school is also immersed in fundraising. “My mantra here is get money, get students,” said college President Phil Stone. He said the college aims to grow enrollment to 800 on campus within five years, plus another 100 or so linked to Sweet Briar through overseas study.
Women’s colleges have dwindled in number over the past half century through closures, mergers or conversions to co-educational programs. The College of New Rochelle in New York is the latest to make the transition, announcing on Dec. 7 that it would admit men for the first time to its school of arts and sciences.
Some women’s colleges have diversified, offering co-ed graduate programs alongside all-women undergraduate classes. Notre Dame of Maryland is an example. State data show its total enrollment fell to 2,612 in fall 2015, from 2,768 the year before. About 95 percent of its undergraduates are women. Notre Dame spokeswoman Susan Repko said recruiting was hurt somewhat by the rioting that occurred in Baltimore last spring. In addition, she said, fewer older students are enrolled in part-time programs. But she said the undergraduate women’s college remains “very strong.”
Mary Baldwin’s fall enrollment totaled 1,666, according to the state, down from 1,755 the year before. More than 90 percent of undergraduates at the college are women. College officials could not be reached Thursday for comment.
Among co-ed private schools, Ferrum in Virginia had 1,334 students in the fall — all undergraduate — down from 1,451 the year before. Its enrollment had topped 1,500 as recently as 2013. Ferrum officials could not be reached for comment.
McDaniel’s fall enrollment, according to Maryland data, was 2,980, down from 3,206 in 2014. McDaniel’s full-time undergraduate population held steady; most of its decline occurred in part-time and graduate programs. A McDaniel spokeswoman said top college officials were not available Thursday for comment.
Two historically black public universities had significant declines. At Virginia State, there were 4,696 students in the fall, down from 5,025. VSU officials could not be reached for comment Thursday because their offices were closed.
At Norfolk State, fall enrollment stood at 5,107, down sharply from 6,027 in 2014. School officials attribute the 15 percent decline in part to concerns raised when an accrediting agency placed Norfolk State on probation in December 2014 for “administrative and procedural matters.”
But a year later the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges lifted its probation and notified Norfolk State that its accreditation concerns had been satisfied. Stan Donaldson, a Norfolk State spokesman, said Thursday the school has focused on elevating academic programs in cybersecurity and other fields.
“We believe that the trend will tick upward in that enrollment number as people begin to hear that we have rectified the [accreditation] situation,” Donaldson said, “and we have positioned the university for a brighter future.”
Data on enrollment for several D.C. universities was not available late last week. At Trinity Washington University, a Catholic women’s school in Northeast, school President Patricia McGuire said total enrollment was down nearly 5 percent, to 2,164. Most of the decline, she said, occurred in graduate and professional programs. She said the undergraduate women’s college “is doing fine.”
Many schools had relatively stable enrollment. At public St. Mary’s College of Maryland, which has sought to rebound in recent years after a sharp drop in 2012 and 2013, state data showed 1,772 students in the fall, down slightly from 1,804 in 2014. College President Tuajuanda Jordan said the school’s recruiting has been helped by “energized and strategic recruitment efforts,” including a recent tuition price cut.
At St. John’s College in Annapolis, an eclectic private school devoted to study of great books of Western civilization, there were 457 students in the fall, a slight dip from 472 in 2014. But there were 549 as recently as 2011.
“We are seeing a slow but steady improvement in the admissions picture at St. John’s,” college President Christopher Nelson said. “We continue to maintain an overall enrollment within the range that we think is desirable for learning at our school.”