CHARLOTTESVILLE — University of Virginia officials may ask the state for permission to shift the school’s enrollment cap, a change that could mean anything from a rise in the number of out-of-state students to a rise in students for a particular major.

Officials mentioned the possibility in a Board of Visitors meeting Friday, but said discussions were in the very early stages ahead of the university’s presentation of its six-year plan to the state this summer. Public universities are periodically asked to submit six-year plans that describe future tuition, degrees and capital projects.

UVa historically has been pressured by three competing interests: the desire to keep its campus relatively small, state rules about ratios of in-state students to out-of-state students and the clamor to enroll more Northern Virginia high school graduates. A historically large application season for the Class of 2023, and unprecedented over-enrollment at Virginia Tech, however, have pushed the issue to the forefront.

“We are exploring some relief from key enrollment requirements, including but not limited to enrollment caps,” said J.J. Davis, the university’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, in a presentation to the board’s finance committee on Friday.

Enrollment caps are a generic term for a number of guidelines built into universities. UVa’s student body demographics are constrained by several internal and legislative choices.

In 2012, the Board of Visitors approved an enrollment increase of about 1,500 over the next five years, due both to a governor’s initiative to increase the number of bachelor’s degrees and a threat from Northern Virginia legislators to cap UVa’s out-of-state enrollment further. In the fall of 2018, there were 16,777 undergraduates at UVa, according to data from the university.

“We don’t want to grow it much further,” Jim Murray, the incoming rector of the university, said after the meeting.

The legislature asks public universities to make roughly 75% of their student body in-state. In this year’s admission cycle, 9,725 students were offered admission for this fall. The school is aiming to enroll 3,740 first-years, with 67% coming from Virginia.

Other state schools, though, are enrolling more and more people — including Virginia Tech, which announced recently that it had accepted far too many students and would pay some Virginians to defer.

Increasing competition for top Virginia high school graduates hurts UVa, but it also “cannibalizes” the smaller institutions in the state, according to UVa’s most recent version of its six-year plan.

According to a presentation by Donna Henry, chancellor of UVa’s College at Wise, 97 students who planned to attend at Wise this fall canceled their deposits and enrolled elsewhere in the state. She believes about half of those students decided to go to Tech instead, and may now be among the freshmen asked to defer. Wise’s total crop of transfer and freshmen students this fall is expected to be 406.

“We know that we’re losing good students to out-of-state schools,” Murray said after the meeting. “We also know that what works for UVa and Virginia Tech may not work for Radford and Longwood and Wise.”

In March, Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation from Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, that will allow public universities to offer a statewide total of six performance pilots or institutional partnership performance agreements.

The idea is to encourage universities to find ways to more efficiently serve students, according to Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

“We didn’t really envision it for changing the ratio of in-state or out-of-state students,” he said. “You hear all the time from Northern Virginia that there aren’t enough slots at UVa or Virginia Tech.”

University boards of visitors have the final say over enrollment levels, but state agencies and legislators do have a say in how universities are allocating resources and whether they should receive more funds.

Wendy Kang, director of finance policy and innovation at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, said SCHEV will review UVa’s new six-year plan, as well as any requests for new funding, initiatives and projections of degree programs. However, use of an institutional partnership performance agreement to shift enrollment would go through the legislature as part of the next state budget package.

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