Jeffrey J. Kraus, assistant vice chancellor of public relations for Virginia's community colleges, says the system has taken on 26,000 more students in the last two years at its 23 institutions statewide.Sarah Walor photo; David Busby illustration
Across Virginia, the demand to get into the state's public colleges and universities is at an all-time high. And even with colleges straining to accept more students, getting accepted into the university of one's choice has never been more competitive.
This year, the University of Virginia received a record number of student applications — 21,839 applications for just 3,240 slots for incoming freshmen. Less than a decade ago, the university was receiving about 14,000 applications a year. U.Va.'s not alone — Virginia Tech received a record 21,201 applications this year, accepting 5,177 freshmen for admission in the fall. Applications received at Virginia Commonwealth University rose from 7,074 in 2000 to 17,489 in 2008.
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As more students compete to get into a state university, admission standards are rising. Average SAT scores and GPAs for incoming freshmen rose significantly at VCU over the last decade, according to undergraduate admissions director Sybil Halloran. In 2000, the average VCU freshman had a 3.06 GPA and 1035 SAT score; now it's a 3.36 and a 1082. "It is definitely more competitive than it was several years ago," Halloran says.
And as demand rises, state colleges and universities are under pressure to increase enrollment numbers. For instance, VCU has added about 1,000 slots for incoming freshmen over the last decade, and Virginia State University has added about 300 students to its freshman class, which now numbers about 1,300. U.Va. and Tech have tried to keep incoming freshman class sizes stable, but demand has forced adjustments. Last year, Tech admitted a record 5,601 incoming freshmen, about 500 more than usual, and U.Va. agreed in 2005 to admit about 100 more undergraduates each year for five years.
So what accounts for the surge? Technology, for one thing — the Internet has made it easier to apply to college, says U.Va. media-relations director Marian Anderfuren. This year, U.Va. joined CommonApp, a national service that allows prospective college students to apply to numerous schools across the nation with one online application.
Most admissions directors statewide say that they've been warned for years that population growth statewide, along with a mini "baby boom" in the early 1990s, was going to create a massive surge in college demand around this time. And cost is a growing concern, prompting many students to choose public institutions.
"Over the last two years, we've taken on an additional 26,000 students into our system. That is a number that is bigger than most of [Virginia's] four-year universities," says Jeffrey J. Kraus, assistant vice chancellor of public relations for Virginia's community colleges. "Imagine taking an institution the size of VCU and saying, ‘Here you go!' "
At Virginia's 23 community colleges, no qualified applicant is turned away. Some campuses, such as those in Northern Virginia, have too much demand for specific classes to allow everyone to take a course the semester they desire, but the system on the whole is able to meet its students' instructional needs, Kraus says.
As one might suspect, the surge in student enrollment has necessitated infrastructure upgrades, including building or renovating dorms and adding classrooms. By 2011, Kraus says, Virginia community colleges anticipate adding a million square feet of new instructional space, including the new Thomas Nelson Historic Triangle campus in Williamsburg.
"It's a big impact on a university when you have 400 or 600 more students than usual," says Virginia Tech's Amy Widner, public-relations coordinator for undergraduate admissions. Though Tech did not add buildings to cope with its record freshman enrollment last year, she says, "We did have to shuffle folks around, put people in triple rooms in dormitories and finagle classroom seats."
VCU has added 889,000 square feet in new classroom space and faculty offices over the last 10 years, including new buildings for the schools of arts, business and engineering. From 2000 to 2004, student-housing capacity nearly doubled on VCU's Monroe Park Campus, growing from 2,878 beds to 5,036 beds. The university is now building new classrooms and library space in the former Ukrop's building at North Harrison and Grace streets. Future construction plans call for a new academic building, as well as an addition to Cabell Library.
In a $27 million upgrade, VSU added a 500-plus-bed residence hall last year and a dining hall that opens this semester, says university-relations director Tom Reed. The university is adding another $21 million dormitory this year.
U.Va. is tearing down several dorms built in the 1960s and replacing them with larger residences and a new student commons. Mr. Jefferson's University has met about two-thirds of its goal to raise $3 billion by 2011. The money will go toward new teaching and research buildings, as well as many other projects, including replenishing the university's endowment fund, which has taken "a bit of a hit," Anderfuren says. "We're a state institution, but we can't rely on a consistent and steady flow of state funding. We have to be able to help ourselves."
Although budget cuts have been difficult everywhere, state universities are seeing one bright side to the poor economy. As money becomes tighter, students who once might have applied only to private colleges are taking a second look at the state schools' economic value.
U.Va., "one of the public ivies," according to Anderfuren, is considered a great bargain for both in-state and out-of-state students. Also, the AccessUVa financial-aid program, begun in 2004, promises that any student who's admitted to the university will have all of his or her demonstrated needs met, with loans no larger than one year of in-state tuition. "It's not a full ride," says Anderfuren, "but between scholarships, grants and loans and AccessUVa, students will have their educational needs met over the four years they are here."
In fact, the economic downturn has boosted enrollment at all state colleges and universities. VSU's Reed says that one of his university's leading selling points is that "we continue to have the second-lowest tuition and fees of any public school in the state. [Norfolk State has the lowest.] The students that we attract, they are in need of financial aid … and we're a very good value with the quality of education at Virginia State."
Perhaps the greatest bargain for the dollar remains Virginia's community colleges, says Kraus. "The average tuition to attend a Virginia community college is about one-third of what you'll [pay] at a state university."
A 2008 study commissioned by Virginia's community colleges found that one out of three students who graduated with a bachelor's degree from a Virginia public university began their studies at a community college.
In addition to families seeking to save money, Kraus cites the community-college system's guaranteed transfer agreements with more than two dozen public and private colleges and universities. "Your child can begin that four-year degree at their community college and have a guarantee they can transfer to Tech or U.Va. or VCU or William & Mary," he says. "It's not a ‘maybe,' it's not ‘likely' or ‘possible,' it's guaranteed."
And in a time when families can take less and less for granted, that's saying something.