Photo: Washington Post Photo By Jahi Chikwendiu.
BLACKSBURG, Va. – Swamped with a surge of incoming freshmen it hadn’t foreseen, Virginia Tech this summer tried all kinds of dorm-maximizing tricks to squeeze in its largest class ever. Singles morphed into doubles, doubles into triples. Lounges became pop-up bedrooms for three or more.
And it shunted more than 500 students into a pair of hotels, including a Holiday Inn Express, here in the hills of southwestern Virginia.
Tishya Anand, 17, of Ashburn, Virginia, made the best of it as she unpacked gear in a makeshift triple at the Inn at Virginia Tech. It was move-in day, ahead of the start of classes Monday. Dealing with tight quarters, she figured, “shows your unity as a school.”
Her mother, Sridevi Anand, was less chipper. “Hotel? I was like, ‘I thought she would be in one of the dorms,’ ” she recalled. “This was a little scary, but it’s going to be OK.”
Many colleges struggling to fill seats would love to have Virginia Tech’s problem. The preliminary head count for the Class of 2023 is about 7,700, exceeding projections by more than 1,000. It’s also about 1,500 more than entered last year.
At root, the enrollment boom reflects a major miscalculation in how many students would accept offers of admission made after the school overhauled recruiting systems to reach a wider market in Virginia and beyond.
Among other steps, Virginia Tech shrank the share of students admitted through binding “early decision,” which tends to favor well-off applicants who can make a commitment to enroll without comparison shopping. It introduced a nonbinding “early action” option for those who do need to shop. It allowed applicants to self-report grades and test scores, which sped up the review process. It also adopted a new online application and revised essay questions.
In the end, the school offered admission to about 22,000 of the 31,815 who applied.
With so much change at once, the outcome of those offers was hard to foresee. Far more said yes by the May 1 deadline than anyone predicted.
Still, university leaders applauded the rapid transformation. “Why wait?” said President Timothy Sands. He is confident this year’s data will lead to better enrollment forecasts next year. “We’re in good shape,” he said.
Virginia Tech’s surge may have siphoned students from other public colleges. Freshman enrollment at Longwood University in Farmville is down more than 10 percent from the usual 1,000. “There is no doubt Virginia Tech’s actions last spring had an impact across the commonwealth’s public universities,” said Justin Pope, chief of staff and vice president at Longwood.
Almost always, colleges would rather have too many students than too few, but the behemoth class at Virginia Tech posed challenges far beyond where all those students would sleep. How would they all eat? Would there be enough professors and enough classrooms? Virginia Tech officials scrambled all summer to make it work.
“Crisis is not quite the right description,” said Cyril Clarke, executive vice president and provost. “It was a matter of significant urgency.”
The university hired more than 30 instructors and visiting professors over the summer, plus 20 graduate teaching assistants, to hold steady the size of introductory courses. Freshman writing courses will still be capped at 20 students each, and chemistry laboratories will still be limited to 24. Many students will have to wake up earlier than normal to get to classes starting at 8 a.m. “We are using more of the day,” said Rachel Holloway, vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs.
Students might also want to avoid popular food spots at peak times even though the university expanded staffing and hours. Waits could be long at noon at Turner Place dining commons. “Like airport security lines,” joked Abdelaziz Alsharawy, 25, a graduate student in economics who is a residential fellow in a dorm.
Spiking enrollment also spotlights the strength of Virginia Tech’s brand, students and officials say, at a crucial moment for a public university founded in 1872. With a powerful research portfolio and key support from Richmond, Virginia Tech is raising its profile in the Washington region by developing a $1 billion high-tech graduate campus in Alexandria near Amazon’s planned headquarters. (Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)
“If that many people are trying to get in, it means there’s something good here,” said William Stubbs, 19, a freshman from Macon, Georgia, who moved into the Inn at Virginia Tech on Wednesday. He said he turned down prestigious Georgia Tech to come here for engineering.
Volatility in demographics and demand often strains universities. Predicting the yield on admission offers – the share of students who accept – is crucial but ever more difficult as students apply to more schools in more places. From the moment admission decisions are launched until the deadline to respond, said Timothy Wolfe, dean of admission at the College of William & Mary, “there is an ever-present sense of uncertainty as to whether the class may come in too high or too low.” Housing shortages sometimes result.
In 2018, the University of California at Santa Cruz asked faculty and staff members to open their homes to students who needed a roof. This year, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst surpassed its freshman class target by about 500 students, leading officials to convert dormitory lounges to four-bed rooms. “Those are quite popular,” said U-Mass. spokeswoman Mary Dettloff. “They’re bigger and roomier.”
In Virginia, James Madison University years ago put students into an old Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge that has since been torn down. Shenandoah University reports this year that it will briefly house some students in a La Quinta Inn.
Analysts say universities in these situations must ensure they don’t alienate parents and students on drop-off day, a time when families are already nervous about transitions.
“Those first impressions are important, both for retaining those students and making sure they’re part of the community,” said Michael Fischer, a campus facilities expert with the education consulting company EAB. Students want to know, he said, that the university “is largely able to provide the experiences they were promised.”
Virginia Tech fielded a battalion of student and staff volunteers, called Hokie Helpers after the school’s mascot, to help when all of the mini-fridges, televisions, microwaves, laptops, printers, extra-long sheets and other gear arrived with pumped-up freshmen and nervous parents. Among the helpers was Juan Espinoza, the associate vice provost and director of admissions.
“Welcome – you’re here, you made it,” Espinoza said to a family at the Holiday Inn Express. “We’re here to help out.” Out of the car and into a wheeled cart went a student’s rubber rain boots, clothes hangers, a suitcase and an industrial-size box of Goldfish crackers.
HIE, as the temporary dorm is called, will sleep 190 students on a site off Prices Fork Road that is about a mile and a half on foot from the green Drillfield and Gothic limestone edifices at the campus core. Students will get air conditioning (unavailable to many in Virginia Tech housing) plus private bathrooms, hotel couches, shuttle buses and hotel breakfasts.
“That’s good living,” Michael Frongillo, a new HIE resident, said with a grin as he unloaded his belongings from a pickup. “That’s the high life – continental breakfast in the morning. Eggs, waffles, fruit.” The 18-year-old from Harford County, Maryland, an engineering student, declared that he was “not worried at all” and pointed to his Trek mountain bike. “I’ve got this to get around.”
Espinoza is a primary architect of changes to admission and recruiting. A graduate of Virginia Tech who grew up in Fairfax County, the 38-year-old son of Bolivian immigrants aims to eliminate roadblocks for disadvantaged students at a university where 16 percent of undergraduates qualify for need-based Pell Grants. The share is 13 percent at the flagship University of Virginia but 30 percent at George Mason University in Fairfax County.
In the last admission cycle, Virginia Tech switched to the Coalition for College online application. That helped boost to 20 percent the share of prospective students who received waivers of the $60 application fee, Espinoza said, a boon for those in financial need. Previously, the share was 5 percent.
“Fantastic,” Espinoza said. “That’s where we want to be.”
Sands, the Virginia Tech president, is pushing for the school’s undergraduate ranks to swell to 30,000 by 2023, up more than 20 percent from when he arrived in Blacksburg in 2014. He wants this growth to be gradual. The surge, he said, was “not part of the plan.”
After it became apparent last spring, the university offered financial incentives for incoming freshmen to delay enrollment. Only a few dozen took them.
Now, the pressure is on resident advisers and others to help the Class of 2023 assimilate. Zoie McMillian, 21, a senior from Richmond, is an RA in West Ambler Johnston Hall. She will have a roommate, which is unusual for RAs, who typically need privacy to counsel students seeking help.
“I know a lot of RAs are probably overwhelmed,” McMillian said. “Of course, we’re going to do our best to make it as good as possible” for the freshmen, she said. “It’s not their fault. They just applied.”
Adrienne Soule-Beller, the mother of a student from Texas, said she is watching closely to see that Virginia Tech delivers for her daughter Gina – “considering what I’m paying for it.” Soule-Beller noted that she pays far more than Virginians. Out-of-state tuition and fees total about $32,800 for this school year, not counting room and board. That is nearly $19,000 more than the in-state price.
Weeks ago, Soule-Beller said she had fears about housing and academic capacity. “I’m less worried now,” she said. “Everybody’s kind of locking arms to make sure this class has a quality experience.”