Virginia State University (VSU) was the first fully-public historically black university in the United States. It would a terrible shame to see such a historically important university disappear from the Commonwealth. Yet, thanks to budget woes, the future does not look bright for VSU.
The school estimates that low enrollment this year (550 fewer students than last year) will translate into $1.6 million in lost tuition revenue. This loss, paired with what one VSU administrator termed a “heavy debt burden,” has put VSU on shaky financial footing. While it’s easy to point to the sudden enrollment drop, understanding what went wrong at VSU requires asking what decisions put the University on the road to ruin in the first place. Some on the Board of Visitors have an idea where to start.
Terone B. Green, who serves on the board, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he wants to figure out why students aren’t choosing VSU anymore and has been frustrated by the administration’s unwillingness to shoulder some of the blame or to provide data to back up their claims.
The administration is sticking to the line that the University is simply a victim of circumstance. A VSU spokesman, Tom Reed, blamed the trouble on “the effects of the changes in federal loan policies, especially with regard to Parent PLUS loans, and the slow recovery from the recession.” Strange, that changes which have affected many schools would uniquely harm VSU.
Of course, this is far from the full story. There are two major issues that the administration needs to fully investigate and explain: the sudden drop in enrollment, and the amount of debt the University took on in building new residence halls and other amenities. There is sad irony in the fact that some dorms—though not the new ones—will be shuttered this year, since there are no students to fill them.
To remain successful, schools must understand that the world of higher education looks very different today. Notably, students are more price-sensitive now. Willie C. Randall, VSU’s vice rector, thinks this may be part of the problem. VSU recently started requiring sophomores to live on campus. “I think tactically that was a mistake,” said Randall, pointing out that limiting students’ options for less-expensive housing could have discouraged students from enrolling.
Regardless of what caused the enrollment drop, the mindset of continual expansion (and forever-increasing tuition to pay for it) has got to go. The new buildings that often sit empty and amenities that add little educational value are a large part of the problem. Many schools have continued to build more, despite budget shortfalls and concerns about the cost of tuition. It’s time for VSU to abandon its fruitless building spree, and re-focus on aiding the students it was meant to serve.