Virginia Tech thought it would have 6,600 in this fall’s incoming freshman class. Instead, it will have somewhere between 7,500 and 7,585.
Even the lower estimate means the incoming class of 2023 will be 17.4 percent bigger than what had been the biggest incoming class — 6,836 in 2017.
It’s a good thing that the algorithm that Tech uses to project how many students accepted will actually attend isn’t the same one used to land airplanes — because Admissions sure overshot the runway on this one.
The record size of the incoming class has caused some consternation in Blacksburg, both on and off campus, and renewed speculation that this unexpectedly large class isn’t really unexpected at all — that Tech secretly plans an exponential expansion.
This is a persistent rumor, one that Tech President Timothy Sands addressed via tweet last month: “Heard a rumor (again) today that VT will grow to the size of Penn St. or Ohio St. (46,000 undergrads). “Truth: 2 yrs ago, we decided to cap undergrad enrollment at 30,000 until 2023 (2% annual growth rate) until VT and Blacksburg infrastructure is in place. Will reassess then.”
Those with long memories (such as ours) hear in this echoes of what we’ve heard before in other situations. In the 1970s, as Madison College was growing into James Madison University, school officials routinely claimed that enrollment had peaked and wouldn’t grow past a certain level. First it was 5,500. Then it was 7,500. Then 8,000 and later 9,000. “We don’t ever anticipate reaching 10,000 or 12,000,” then-president Ronald Carrier declared in 1978. By the time he retired two decades later, the school had 14,000 students. Today it has 21,751 students.
For Virginia Tech, there’s nothing incompatible between a 30,000 cap now “until VT and Blacksburg infrastructure is in place” and much bigger growth later. In fact, that’s exactly how we’d expect such a leap to happen because that’s how it’s happened elsewhere.
For now, Tech attributes the larger-than-expected incoming class to the free market at work. Universities always accept more students than they can handle because they know most students apply multiple places and not all will come. This time, more than expected said “yes.” The marketplace speaks.
The big jump in Tech acceptances is all the more notable because the national trend runs in a very different direction. Nationally, college enrollment has been declining for the past six years, generally attributed to an improving economy which has made going straight into the workforce more attractive, and rising tuitions that have deterred some students for going into monstrous debt.
Virginia Tech is bucking a national trend here and, generally speaking, that’s a good thing. The transition from the industrial age to the information age requires a more educated workforce and while we like to think of the United States as being number one in everything, we’re not. Among 25-to-34 year-olds, the age cohort most likely to have gone to college, 12 countries have a higher percentage of college graduates than the United States. In declining order: South Korea, Canada, Japan, Russia (yes, Russia!), Lithuania, Ireland, Australia, Great Britain, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Norway and Israel. Being 13th in the world is probably not the best way to make America great again. In that context, you can consider Tech’s big incoming class an act of patriotism. Also of note: The incoming class also will likely be Tech’s most diverse ever, as well as one of the most academically-gifted ever.
Of course, while the United States needs more college students, it’s fair to ask is whether we need so many at this one institution. The answer to that depends on your perspective. Some officials aren’t happy. Blacksburg Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith says she is “very concerned.” Blacksburg is a town that is very particular about what type of growth happens there — perhaps too particular in the eyes of some — yet has no control over the biggest entity within its borders. University of Virginia’s College at Wise — which has seen enrollment dip and this year sought special dispensation from the General Assembly to offer in-state rates to out-of-state students in the Appalachian region — probably wishes some of those excess students were in Wise, not Blacksburg. Sweet Briar College, which is trying to grow enrollment after a near-death experience, immediately targeted the women on the wait-list for Tech’s engineering school and offered them automatic admission.
Here’s another way to answer that question, although it’s not an answer that Blacksburg or some Tech faculty will like. Any locality in western Virginia other than Blacksburg would be better off if Tech had a bigger enrollment — even that mythical 46,000 enrollment goal. Indeed, especially that mythical 46,000.
Here’s why: One of the economic imperatives for the region is really a demographic one: We need more young adults, especially young adults with college degrees. Most localities are losing young adults (Roanoke and Montgomery County are the exceptions). And outside Montgomery County, every locality in the region has a deficiency of adults with college degrees. In many rural communities in this part of the state, the percentage of working-age adults with a college degree is less than that of Mexico. Yes, Mexico. In the information age, the skill level of the workforce is one of the main things that draws jobs — or sends them elsewhere.
That’s why one of the official economic goals for the region stretching from the New River Valley to Lynchburg is to persuade more college graduates to stay in the region — each one who does solves two problems at once. The more students who are at Virginia Tech, the more opportunity we have to make the case for some to stay. For that matter, the more students Sweet Briar College has, the better off we are, too. We’d rather some of those wait-listed Tech engineering students go to Sweet Briar than to some other school in a different part of the state, or a different state altogether.
Blacksburg might feel the strain, but other communities in western Virginia might someday feel the benefit. Not that Blacksburg has a choice, but if it did, and capped Tech’s enrollment, Blacksburg wouldn’t feel the pain but Pulaski County and Giles County and Roanoke County and Botetourt County and lots of other places would.
This is cold comfort to Blacksburg, but some Vulcan philosophy from Star Trek’s Spock applies: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”