Students adjust to Zoom, while colleges pore over finances
For Virginia’s college students and faculty, 2020 was the year of Zoom. For the institutions themselves, though, it was a year that brought economic heartbreak and difficult decisions, although it also had a few brighter spots.
Many universities faced budget crises due to the costs of housing refunds and moving classes online, as well as the revenue losses from declining enrollment and canceled athletic events. Virginia Tech saw a net loss of $60.6 million between July and September 2020. VCU faced a $35 million loss by the end of 2020, from which it’s mostly recovered. And the University of Virginia cut $90 million from its $3.76 billion budget.
At Virginia’s community colleges, the fall 2020 headcount fell 4.6% from 2019, although some saw much larger drops, such as Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, where enrollment plummeted 13.2%.
Meanwhile, colleges came up with creative plans to offer students a high-quality educational experience during a time when there were no in-person graduation ceremonies, no basketball games and no crowds allowed in football stadiums. Most institutions brought students back to campuses on a limited basis in fall 2020, while trying to enforce COVID-19 precautions with varying degrees of success.
Lynchburg’s Liberty University — one of the world’s largest Christian universities — saw a 10.5% jump in its online enrollment during the pandemic, cementing its spot as Virginia’s largest university by enrollment, with more than 120,000 students, most of them studying remotely.
Liberty had an eventful 2020, precipitated by a series of embarrassing controversies tied to the school’s former president and chancellor, Jerry Falwell Jr., who was forced to resign in August 2020. With an investigation meant to root out financial improprieties during Falwell’s seven-year tenure underway, the saga is likely to continue into 2021.
Virginia Military Institute also came under scrutiny in 2020. In media reports, alumni described an atmosphere of “relentless racism” at the nation’s oldest public military college, including a 2018 lynching threat reported by a Black former cadet. The controversy led to the resignation of retired U.S. Army Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III as VMI’s superintendent in October 2020, as well as a state investigation into the Lexington school. Under interim superintendent Cedric T. Wins, a retired U.S. Army major and VMI graduate, the school has undergone extensive discussions about its practices and removed its statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who had been a VMI professor.
Despite the strange times, Virginia’s largest universities moved forward with significant plans, including Virginia Tech’s $1 billion Innovation Campus in Alexandria, where demolition and infrastructure work started in January. VCU, Liberty and U.Va. launched massive fundraising campaigns.
The commonwealth’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) also benefited this year from a philanthropic windfall following social justice protests — including funding from Dominion Energy Inc. and Virginia Natural Gas. In late 2020, MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, made $30 million and $40 million gifts, respectively, to Virginia State University and Norfolk State University, the schools’ largest-ever single-donor donations.
For many HBCUs, the gifts came not a minute too soon, as these institutions typically do not have large endowment funds and were more likely than predominantly white institutions to see enrollment decrease due to the financial downturn from the pandemic. The federal government eliminated $1.3 billion in loan debts for HBCUs in December 2020.
Additionally, Northam announced in September 2020 that the state will refinance bonds taken out by the state’s public colleges and universities under more favorable terms, expecting to save the institutions more than $300 million over the next two years.
There are still plenty of questions about when schools will see a return to normal activities — such as graduation ceremonies, fraternity parties or simply gathering in large classes — but for some, immediate financial difficulties have been eased by this extra private and public sector support.
- Colleges & universities (private, nonprofit)
- Colleges & universities (public)
- Community colleges
- Endowments at Virginia colleges and universities