Virginia universities increasingly eyeing guaranteed admissions

George Mason University (file photo)

As Virginia Commonwealth University rolls out a program that grants admission to any high school senior with a certain GPA, it’s the latest school to face challenges ensuring its facilities and infrastructure can keep up with the influx of students.

VCU, along with George Mason University and at least four other Virginia universities, have begun offering guaranteed admissions to address declining enrollment numbers and help bolster populations of underrepresented students.

“While this is launching as a pilot program, we do expect an increase in admissions,” said Michael Porter, a spokesman for VCU. “Short term, we are working across the university to anticipate and address housing needs, including how we allocate residence hall space.”

Virginia public universities previously offered guaranteed admission to students who completed two years of study in the Virginia Community College System and had a certain GPA. But schools are increasingly eyeing more expansive programs that target high school students.

Enrollment at Virginia’s public colleges and universities has steadily declined overall to a low of 368,174 students in the fall of 2021 from 409,075 in 2012, according to data collected by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the coordinating body for the state’s colleges and universities.

There have been some rebounds. The enrollment totals rose to 369,813 in fall 2022. And since the pandemic, some schools have seen enrollment increases, with student bodies growing at the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Virginia State University, George Mason University, William & Mary and Norfolk State University between the fall of 2020 and the fall of 2022, according to data collected by SCHEV. But that growth hasn’t been uniform: VCU lost approximately 1,000 students during the same period.

Universities and colleges “know the demographics, they know what’s happening, and so they’re making adjustments based on what they think they need to do to maintain their enrollments or if they’re looking to grow,” said Bob Spieldenner, a spokesman for SCHEV.

Guaranteed admission requirements

Under VCU’s new program, first-year freshman applicants who are among the top 10% of their high school graduating class and have at least a 3.5 GPA will automatically qualify for admission, although some programs, such as arts and engineering, have major-specific requirements.

“The guaranteed university admission program will easily connect top-performing high school graduates with a nationally ranked major research university,” said Hernan Bucheli, an interim vice president with VCU. “And this program will have a positive impact on Virginia’s economy because we know that our talented graduates are career-ready and a majority stay here in Virginia.”

Other four-year public institutions, including George Mason, Radford University, the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and Virginia Military Institute, offer similar admissions programs. Old Dominion University is working on a similar offering but has not finalized the details, according to school spokeswoman Kenya Godette.

Mason officials say they saw an enrollment increase in part due to beginning guaranteed admissions. The university hit a record this past semester, becoming the first college or university in Virginia to surpass 40,000 students, making it the largest four-year public school in the state. (The private Christian Liberty University is considered to have Virginia’s largest student population, with roughly 100,000, many of them through the school’s online programs.)

Norfolk State University, one of Virginia’s historically Black colleges and universities. (Norfolk State)
“I think the size acknowledges the growing influence that Mason has in the region, in the commonwealth and, truly, on a global scale as so much of our growth has come from beyond the United States,” said David Burge, Mason’s vice president for enrollment management, in a statement. “We’re at a moment where opportunity and preparation meet.”

The university enrolled 4,500 freshmen this year, including 3,500 from Virginia.

GMU spokesman John Hollis said that 59% of students admitted through the guaranteed admission program this year were underrepresented minorities, and 37% were first-generation college students. The average student GPA was 3.65.

Every school sets different standards for guaranteed admissions. Radford requires a 3.3 GPA and completion of Algebra II. VMI offers guaranteed admission to students from military high schools in the region who have a 3.25 GPA, have completed Algebra II and have held a leadership role within their high school’s corps of cadets. UVA Wise requires students to have a 3.0 GPA, be ranked among the top 50% of their high school class and have a minimum 2.0 GPA, or have a score of 17 on the ACT or 1900 on the SAT score and have a minimum 2.0 GPA.

“Students no longer need a combination of test scores, class rankings and grade point average to be admitted,” Jeffrey Baylor, chancellor of enrollment at UVA Wise, said in a statement. “The college now requires a single qualifier.”

Housing challenges

But as universities hope for increased enrollment through programs like guaranteed admission, they must also grapple with providing housing for expanded student populations.

Last month, reports surfaced that VCU had an insufficient number of available rooms for its 4,500 incoming freshmen. CBS 6 reported that 80 students had to stay at a hotel. VCU’s housing options were further constricted after the institution found mold at Johnson Hall, one its 12 residential buildings, and was forced to close it and begin renovation.

Norfolk State University experienced one of highest rates of enrollment growth among four-year public schools in Virginia, with a 9% increase between the fall of 2017 and 2022, according to data from SCHEV. The university launched its guaranteed admissions program in 2021.

But with a growing number of students, the university struggled to provide residence space for students.

Norfolk State admitted approximately 6,000 students for the current school year, but only had space for around 3,000, according to 13News Now. The university placed students into three local hotels, one of which is now home to 300 to 400 students.

“The university is adjusting to accommodate as much of this growth as possible,” NSU said in a statement. “We are excited that more students are seeing the tremendous value of a Norfolk State education and doing our best to make room for as many new students as possible.”

This article was reported and written by the Virginia Mercury, and has been reprinted with permission.