Enrollment at Virginia Commonwealth University has declined four years in a row, and the university is in need of strategies for growth.
One possible answer: online education. VCU has about 1,000 fully online students out of about 28,000. It projects growing to more than 2,500 online students by 2028.
But that kind of growth may not be fast enough. VCU’s board of visitors convened Friday for its annual retreat and discussed at length the need to rapidly grow the school’s online education.
“We’re way behind on online learning,” said Ben Dendy, head of VCU’s board. “We need to move quickly.”
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How far VCU will go, it’s hard to say. Some universities that have pivoted to online education have gone all in. One such school, Arizona State University, saw its enrollment explode and now boasts 140,000 students, with almost half online.
Much closer to home, Liberty University in Lynchburg has nearly 100,000 students, with more than 80,000 online.
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VCU already has two fully online undergraduate programs — social work and homeland security. Social work classes meet remotely Monday through Thursday from 4 to 6:40 p.m. The homeland security program offers weekly live sessions that last 60 to 90 minutes.
To build the programs, VCU employed Noodle, a company that designs online curricula. This semester, VCU added two more, one in marketing and accounting and another in public relations and advertising.
The next fields of study will likely involve technology, business and health care, where demand is the highest.
Online students pay the same tuition as those attending in person. But administrators are still considering what kind of fees online students should pay. Some online students might still be interested in visiting gyms and attending basketball games, which are covered by the athletics fee. Students in other cities and states likely wouldn’t.
These days, it’s not enough to offer only in-person learning, said Tomikia LeGrande, VCU’s vice president for enrollment and student success. Students now expect to learn in flexible ways that meet their interests, whether it’s completely online or in a hybrid model.
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Expanding online offerings would allow VCU to reach students in other cities and states who wouldn’t normally consider the school. High school graduates without the means to move away for college have two options — the local community college or online education. Adding online classes puts thousands of new students within VCU’s reach.
“For our survival and for us to thrive, we have to actively pursue these new markets,” LeGrande said.
VCU’s enrollment has dropped four straight years, from roughly 31,000 in 2018 to 28,400 this year. The decline in students has led to budget shortfalls, causing the university to leave open positions unfilled.
“It’s a truly competitive atmosphere,” said Todd Haymore, a member of the board.
One in four students accepted to VCU chooses to enroll, a figure known as a university’s “yield.” That number might sound low, but it’s higher than most public colleges in the state. The University of Virginia’s yield is 45%, and the College of William & Mary’s is 27%.
The areas of study within VCU with the greatest opportunity for growing their yields are humanities and sciences, engineering and business, LeGrande said. Peter Farrell, another board member, added that nothing will drive student interest more than making programs the best and the financial aid the highest.
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VCU unveiled a new marketing campaign this semester in which it describes VCU in words that start with “un,” such as “unequaled opportunities,” “unleashing innovation,” “undeniable nationally recognized for diversity” and “unstoppable.”
It purchased ad space on the U.S. News & World Report website and placed its new messages on the landing pages for various colleges across the state, including William & Mary, George Mason University, James Madison University and Virginia Tech.
One model for online education is Arizona State. On Friday, VCU’s board spoke via Zoom to Michael Crowe, ASU’s president. He explained how his school went headfirst into online education during the past 20 years.
Arizona State offers in-person education, fully online classes for degree-seeking students and basic online classes such as English or math for students who aren’t yet ready for college-level classes.
Arizona State accepts every student who meets a certain academic threshold, and it doesn’t require standardized test scores. It offers 450 degree programs for undergraduates, and it constantly focuses on innovation, Crowe said.
Michael Rao, president of VCU, said he understands there will be pushback, possibly from faculty. In the world of higher education, online classes are often considered taboo.
At Arizona State, Crowe explained how he dealt with resistance. If he got buy-in from 80% of a department, the university moved forward. The other 20% could quit if necessary, he said. Too often, universities tend to be stodgy and resist innovation.
“The list of people who don’t want us to succeed is long because we’re questioning the basic model,” Crowe said.
Another barrier to adding online classes is figuring out how to scale up VCU’s current offerings. The university can’t expect faculty to figure out how to move their curricula online. Do that, and VCU will get nothing but lectures broadcast on Zoom, LeGrande said. The university is hiring staff whose job is to design quality online educational programs.
Rao expressed a feeling of urgency. “It’s time to go,” he said.