Luisa Havens Gerardo, vice provost for enrollment management, sat down for a VT News interview to discuss the factors behind recruiting an incoming fall 2019 class of first-year students that has already exceeded expectations. Since arriving at Virginia Tech in August 2017, Havens Gerardo has worked with Juan Espinoza, the director of admissions and associate vice provost for enrollment and degree management, and others to overhaul the admissions process to make it more accessible, inclusive, and data-driven.

Q: What was the original target number for the incoming class, and where does the estimate stand now?

A: Our goal was to have 6,600 first-year students this fall, so we estimated that we needed to have just below 7,000 students accept our offer of admission to meet that goal by the start of the fall term to account for “melt,” or the proportion of students that we lose between May 1 and the start of the term every year.  On the last two weeks of this cycle, the number of students accepting our offer continued strong and by the national decision deadline of May 1 we had received just over 8,000 acceptances. Accounting for the melt rates historically realized, we’re now projecting a class in the range of 7,500, although we will closely monitor the number as it changes over the summer months.

Q: Is it common to be this far off in an estimate? How did this happen?

A: No, it is not common, but gaps in the estimates do occur, both here and across higher education institutions.

This year, on April 23 we conducted point-in-time comparisons against the 2018 and 2017 admissions cycles, and the data indicated acceptances just above 7,100 on the low end of the range and 7,300 on the high end. That range would have amounted to over-enrollment of almost 400 students at the most. Every day, we thought, "This is the day it’ll die down," with the trend lines slowing down, but they never slowed.

Customarily, in-state student acceptances tend to diminish as we approach May 1, but it didn’t happen. Virginia Tech had more students accept admission this year. Others schools have experienced anomalies in their enrollment as well. We need to realize that higher education is a commodity that is subject to marketplace influences. For instance, we saw an increase in applications in 2000 when our football team played in the national championship game, and we called it a “championship bump.” And this year, our results are pointing toward an “Innovation Campus bump” related to the unprecedented coverage and brand recognition that we received with the announcement of our new campus in Northern Virginia and our role in filling the tech- talent pipeline for the commonwealth.

Almost 50 percent of the current overage in accepted offers is in the College of Engineering, and close to 50 percent of the overage in the college is concentrated in two majors—computer science and computer engineering—that are linked to the commonwealth’s plans to greatly expand the pipeline of talented graduates.

Prior to May 1, the trend lines for international students were pointing toward a decline for universities across the nation and also for Virginia Tech, mainly due to a 16 percent decline in applications that we received, but our international student acceptances were up 60 percent from the target. We tripled acceptances from India, for instance. And even our yield of Asian-American students, which has remained consistent for many years, realized an 11 percent increase in this cycle.

Furthermore, the proportion of full-pay students (students without demonstrated need who did not receive any financial assistance) increased 42 percent compared to our 2018 incoming cohort, at a time when other universities just aren’t realizing any growth among full-pay students. As a result, our discount rate is benchmarking below our expectations, at around 8 percent.

It generally takes three years of concerted efforts and increased investments to make a dent in segments like international markets and full-pay students. The increased visibility and brand exposure that the Innovation Campus has created is the most plausible explanation for the rapid change. It’s hard not to connect the dots.

Q: Is the over-enrollment related to the university’s goal of having 40 percent of the student population come from underserved or underrepresented communities by 2022?

A: Our plan for the entering class had 400 additional seats, so we worked to expand access across all categories of students. We pursued a mix of students that could proportionally contribute to growth and to strategic population goals.

Q: What other factors influence enrollment?

A: One factor is the on-campus visit. We know that the campus visit plays an important role in predicting a student’s decision to enroll, but we had artificially limited our visit programs. In this 2019 admissions cycle, our number of visitors was 78 percent higher than 2018 and 50 percent higher than 2017, and this likely played a role in converting applicants to enrolled students.

We have also aggressively modified our application process. The number of in-state high school graduates is finite, and if we had waited any longer to make these changes, we would’ve risked falling behind and not capturing our due share of the market. We have a duty as a land-grant institution to serve Virginians, and this year’s results demonstrate that we are trending in the right direction.

Q: Can we accommodate this many students on campus?

A: The provost has already organized a working group to prepare for the influx and preserve the quality of the Virginia Tech experience. The solutions will evolve over the summer and we will implement and be prepared to welcome our new students. One possible solution is to modify our requirement that first-year students live on campus for the 2019-20 year. Another consideration is incentivizing students to start classes earlier, during the Summer Academy, or later than the fall semester. We are also working with faculty and our facility teams to explore ways to better coordinate the scheduling of classrooms so that we can schedule courses and utilize classroom spaces more effectively.

Q: Will this larger incoming class affect retention rates over time?

A: We saw an over-enrollment in 2017, and I expected the retention rate for first-year students returning for a second year to dip below 93 percent, but it didn’t. While I don’t dismiss the concern, we don’t have evidence that the larger size will have a negative effect on retention.

As we approach our milestone of 30,000 undergraduates by 2023 (we were at about 27,800 as of fall 2018), we will continue working to improve our retention rates and reduce time-to-degree (currently at 4.03 years and dropping for the bachelor’s degree), across all students and among specific groups. Although a large incoming first-year class in one cycle presents challenges, we have many other levers that can be adjusted over a period of years to keep total undergraduate enrollment at a level that can be accommodated without sacrificing the quality of the student experience.

Q: Has the university decided to grow beyond 30,000 undergraduates by 2023 to align with other land-grants such as Penn State and Ohio State that have roughly 46,000 undergraduates?

A: No. President Sands has established a planning milestone for 2023 of 30,000 undergraduates based in Blacksburg. This milestone, as a cap for 2023, was based on the timeline for enhancing the infrastructure on the Blacksburg campus and in the town of Blacksburg. The number also represents the appropriate scale for a thriving, comprehensive, public, land-grant research university in the U.S. Beyond that scale, there is no clear evidence that bigger is better. We are already close to scale, and although the size of this fall’s class represents an anomaly, we expect to grow gradually over the next several years and achieve scale by 2023. While we regularly assess goals across the board, there are no plans at present to grow beyond about 30,000 undergraduates based in Blacksburg.