Here’s one of the wackier higher ed stories I’ve come across in a while. From our sister paper in Richmond:
Virginia Tech is offering some incoming students money to not attend the university for up to a year — a move that comes in the wake of an overenrollment crunch.
Tech’s oversized freshman class, which is anticipated to have more than 7,000 students, would strain the infrastructure of the university and town of Blacksburg, officials have said.
In an effort to ease that, Tech is offering a group of 1,559 incoming, in-state freshmen in specific programs financial incentives to skip the 2019-20 school year in Blacksburg — or at least a semester. The university has budgeted $3.3 million for the program.
Since 2009, Virginia Tech has welcomed more than 5,000 new freshmen each year. The freshman class topped 6,000 for the first time in 2015 and hit nearly 7,000 two years ago. Last fall’s incoming class numbered 6,285 as total on-campus enrollment pushed its way up to almost 33,000. That’s a long way of saying Tech is used to dealing with large herds of college students.
But something went horribly wrong in Tech’s admissions office this year. According to the Times-Dispatch, VT was aiming for a first-year class of 6,600. By early May, 8,009 said they were coming. Factor in the summer melt — a few of those 8,000 and change will get lost on the way to Blacksburg, metaphorically speaking — and Tech’s back-of-the-admissions-offer-envelope math said that 7,500 to 7,600 new first-years would show up on campus in late August.
Virginia Tech figured that no amount of new housing, adjuncts or parking spaces could handle that many freshmen, so the university is asking almost 1,600 of them to stay home in the fall. Here are those three options. They're a clever combination of scholarships, summer classes and community college enrollment. Note that the students offered these deals don’t have to take any of them and can still show up in August as they planned.
What's happening at Virginia Tech isn't the norm. When schools miss enrollment numbers, it's usually because they don't get enough students. The Chronicle of Higher Ed noted only one previous instance of a school using financial incentives to manage its incoming freshman class. (To relieve a housing crunch, the University of Georgia in 2017 offered new first-year students $1,000 to live at home instead of on campus.) Then there's what University of California, Irvine tried to do in 2017 to manage a too-big freshman class: rescind 500 offers of admissions. The university backtracked faster than it took you to read this sentence.
Virginia Tech, meanwhile, is spinning this as an “essentially good problem to have,” a university spokesman told the Chronicle of Higher Ed.
Though Virginia Tech will experience its most complicated and expensive summer in years, the university spokesman isn't really wrong: Enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities is down 1.9 percent spring-over-spring, according to new figures from the National Student Clearinghouse. (North Carolina declined half a point over that same time.) That’s the second straight spring that four-year public universities like Virginia Tech and the UNC System schools have seen an enrollment decline. This has led to a lot of furrowed brows at plenty of state universities, but not at Virginia Tech, which has an embarrassment of enrollment riches and a $3.3 million budget to deal with it.
P.S. The four-year private nonprofits shouldn’t be too excited over their first enrollment increase in three springs. As the Chronicle points out, most of the increase happened because the massive Grand Canyon University — with 20,000-plus students on its Phoenix campus and another 75,000 students online — converted to nonprofit status a year ago.