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RICHMOND — Two Southwest Virginia college leaders say this week’s release of fall 2021 enrollment numbers by the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia may not give a full picture of how COVID-19 has affected their schools.

SCHEV on Monday issued its look at how enrollment at the state’s public and private four-year colleges and community colleges is faring in the second year of the pandemic. The report lists institutions’ enrollment losses and gains by comparing actual headcount numbers from the fall 2020 semester with estimates for this fall’s semester.

Virginia’s four- and two-year college enrollment remains basically unchanged from the fall 2019 semester at about 525,000 — just before the pandemic struck in early 2020 — according to SCHEV’s report (https://research.schev.edu/enrollment/EEE_Report.asp).

SCHEV spokesperson Laura Osberger said on Tuesday the council normally has not released comparison reports but wanted to give the public a better idea of what impact the pandemic has had on higher education in the state.

“Enrollment has been essentially flat since last year,” Osberger said, adding that actual numbers for the current semester will become available in January 2022. “It’s still early in the semester, and community colleges are generally the last to report because of split courses during a semester.”

According to the report, the state’s public four-year colleges and universities saw total headcount enrollment — full-time and part-time students — drop from 175,044 to 171,592 since fall 2020 — a 2% loss.

The University of Virginia’s College at Wise saw a 12.6% total headcount loss from 1,906 to 1,665, according to the SCHEV data, but UVA Wise Chancellor Donna P. Henry said on Tuesday that current enrollment numbers give a different picture.

The latest UVA Wise estimate this fall is 1,844 students — an approximately 4% drop — Henry said, and the college and other state four-year institutions typically submit final fall semester numbers by Nov. 1

Henry pointed to other factors that have affected enrollment.

Part of UVA Wise’s mission includes teachers taking state-required recertification courses through the college’s Center for Teaching Excellence, and Henry said the state Department of Education has relaxed the period for getting that coursework done in the past two years. That has meant about 200 fewer teachers taking courses at any one time, she added.

Henry said the pandemic may have affected some first-time students’ decision to transfer to UVA Wise earlier in the pandemic to remain closer to home. The transfer rise settled back in 2021, she added, and that may have contributed to some of the enrollment decline

While UVA Wise’s part-time headcount saw a 26.3% drop according to SCHEV’s numbers, the full-time headcount dropped 3% from 1,116 to 1,083. In-state student enrollment showed a 15% drop since 2020, but out-of-state enrollment climbed 11% in the same period.

Henry said the college’s ability to start recruiting students at in-state tuition rates from the Appalachian Regional Commission’s states and counties has helped offset in-state enrollment since 2019. With 36 out-of-state students brought in under the ARC program in 2019, Henry said that number climbed to 85 this fall.

“We’re beginning to see the results from ARC enrollment,” Henry said.

Mountain Empire Community College is seeing a 5.4% enrollment drop — from 2,253 to 2,132 — according to the SCHEV report, but MECC President Kristen Westover said the college is building back from an estimated 8% loss at the beginning of the semester.

“Some of it may be high school students who recently graduated and may have decided to take a gap year,” Westover said, adding that other students may have affected some students looking at home, childcare or employment challenges during the pandemic.

“You can’t attribute it to just one thing,” Westover said. “The first three semesters of the pandemic, we were actually up in enrollment.”

Westover said dual enrollment of high school students taking college courses in tandem has dropped during the pandemic. That may have come as area school divisions have gone through remote learning and a shift back to in-person classes.

“We appreciate the challenges the local school systems are dealing with,” Westover said.

The SCHEV report pointed to a 6.9% rise in private non-profit college and university enrollment since 2019, pointing to Liberty University as the source of much of that growth.

Emory & Henry College showed a 13.3% headcount enrollment rise since fall 2020, from 985 to 1,085. In-state enrollment rose by 1.5% from 615 to 624 students, while out-of-state enrollment grew 34.4% from 343 to 461.

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