In 2010, when the University of the District of Columbia was mapping out its Campus Master Plan for the coming decade, increasing student enrollment was one of its four goals. At the time, around 5,800 students were enrolled in its degree programs. UDC initially set 10,000 students as its goal, but settled on an enrollment cap of 6,000 after discussions with the Zoning Commission.
UDC has not even maintained its 2010 enrollment. By spring 2020, UDC had 4,157 students, which included graduate, undergraduate, community college and law students.
At the first public engagement meetings for the 2021-2030 Campus Master Plan in February and on August 5th, student enrollment did not come up at all. There were no projections of enrollment over the next ten years, no graphs or charts on what kind of students UDC is targeting, and no presentation or discussion on where and how it is targeting growth.
And at the DC Council oversight hearing on UDC on March 5th, Council Chair Phil Mendelson asked UDC President Ronald Mason about enrollment, and got no answer.
We know that increasing student enrollment is important to UDC. Enrollment is crucial to the viability of any university. To understand more about the forces shaping UDC’s enrollment through its history and today, I hunted through archives including the Washingtoniana collection’s news clippings on UDC. Here’s what I found.
UDC was formed by the 1977 consolidation of Washington Technical Institute, Federal City College and the DC Teachers College. They had 14,134 students at the time. Washington Technical Institute was already at Van Ness, and the others soon followed.
The majority of the students were Black. They also tended to be older and holding down jobs while going to school. In 1983, the median student age was 27. Seventy-seven percent of the students were attending classes part-time, and 70.4% of the students working full- or part-time.
Enrollment declines in the 1980s tracked the District’s population decline. By the 1988-89 school year, enrollment dropped below 10,000. But older working students remained the predominant proportion of the student body.
The District’s population continued to fall well into the 1990s. So did UDC’s. Enrollment dropped from 9,660 in 1995 to 4,754 in 1997. From that point on, enrollment hovered around 5,000 to 5,500 with roughly 60% part-time students enrolled between 2003 and 2013.
UDC also struggled with losses in accreditation and cuts to its budget from the mid-1990s into this century, when UDC and DC population trends diverged. The District’s population grew from its 2000 low of 572,000 to more than 705,000 in 2019. UDC enrollment fell to 4,270 students in the spring 2019 semester.
UDC’s community college separated from the Van Ness “flagship university” campus in the 2009-2010 academic year. UDC gained Middle States accreditation in 2012. And in 2016, Ronald Mason, a leader with a reputation for turning around troubled universities, joined UDC as its president. But enrollment continued to fall.
Through it all, UDC’s largest group of students continued to range between 25 and 34 years of age. But UDC’s vision for itself is as a destination for the District’s high school students.
UDC believes newer, modernized facilities will make its programs more attractive. At the March Council oversight hearing, Mason requested between $700 and $900 million to upgrade its Van Ness, Bertie Backus and Congress Heights campuses. Mendelson pushed him – which figure was it? he asked. Mason ended up at the $900 million figure. He stated that all three campuses need serious upgrades.
Troy Le-Maile-Stovall, UDC’s outgoing chief operating officer, concurs. He told me UDC needs significant capital investment to increase its enrollment and increase interest in its dual track program, which awards college credit to high school students. It is difficult, he said, to attract those students when high school facilities are better equipped.
“There’s a direct link between what our facilities look like and our ability to attract and retain students,” LeMaile-Stovall told me in March. “Our facilities don’t need to look modern but must be modern.”
LeMaile-Stovall said that’s the heart of UDC’s 2018 Equity Imperative Strategic Plan – “an imperative,” he said, “to bring equity to our academic and academic support facilities.”
Getting the $900 million for campus upgrades doesn’t solve another UDC numbers problem.
In 2018, as UDC was rolling out its four-year strategic plan, 3,359 students graduated from DC public schools and charter schools. According to the DC Policy Center, 56% of those students went on to pursue a postsecondary education within six months. And with a number of area colleges and community colleges also competing for these students, the pool does not appear to be large enough to provide UDC with substantial growth.
However, the District’s growing population does provide a large pool of potential students in UDC’s core 25 to 34-year-old student age group. Given its strength over the years, this is a population that bears more attention.
Questions linger about whether UDC has a clear understanding of its student market and a realistic plan of how it will attract more students to its campuses. More attractive and better outfitted facilities are necessary, but that alone will not get UDC to its enrollment goals.