Liz McCormick Published

Fall 2020 Saw Lowest College, Vocational-Technical School Enrollment In 20 Years For W.Va.

College student with face mask back at college or university, coronavirus concept.

Less than half of West Virginia’s 2020 public high school seniors enrolled in higher education this past fall. That includes traditional four-year institutions, two-year institutions, and vocational and technical schools.

According to the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, only 48.2 percent of high school seniors who graduated in 2020 pursued some higher education in the fall.

That marks the lowest college-going rate for recent high school graduates in the state since 2000. The commission’s chancellor, Sarah Armstrong Tucker, said the coronavirus pandemic played a role in that decline, but said it’s not clear if it’s the main culprit.

“We anticipated, as did the rest of the country, that we would have fewer students going to college this year, because of concerns about exposure to COVID,” Tucker said.

It is a low point for West Virginia, but it’s also not a sharp decline.

The college-going rate in West Virginia has hovered around or just above 50 percent for several years, Tucker noted. She said the biggest problem has been ensuring students understand that going to college, whether the traditional way or a community and technical college, is doable and important for student futures.

“So, that’s what we’ve been working on,” she said. “Trying to find ways to make sure that our students know that going to college is a possibility. And not just a possibility, but an affordable possibility.”

Tucker said certain groups, in particular, do not enroll as often as others. For example, higher income students in West Virginia enroll in college 25 percent more than lower income students — and more women enroll in higher education than men, by about 20 percent.

“There’s a population of 60 percent of males out there that don’t know what we do and don’t understand how well we do it,” she said. “And so we really need to start targeting them and getting them into school.”

Tucker said all students can get affordable college degrees in West Virginia. The state offers several financial aid opportunities such as the PROMISE Scholarship and the West Virginia Invests Grant.

Ahead of the 2021 state legislative session, higher education officials reported that submissions of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in the state were down by 25 percent.

As of April 23, the West Virginia HEPC reported that 49.4 percent of 2021 high school seniors have completed the FAFSA.

The deadline to submit FAFSA applications was extended in the state to July 1.