Profile: Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU)
Virginia Commonwealth University is the second school that I’ve had the privilege to visit in 2020. I was lucky to be invited to a counselor fly-in co-managed by this school and Longwood University. It was a rainy day at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), so I gathered pictures from Pinterest to let you see much of what I saw. Although I had to see the campus in the rain, VCU has the closest thing to a college town vibe that I have ever seen at a city university.
VCU is one of the few public universities that’s located in a city that’s a major business center as well as a state capital. It felt like a smaller version of Ohio State, which I visited several years ago, only without agriculture, architecture, and a Power 5 football team. In fact, this public university with 24,000 undergraduates does not play football. But like Ohio State, it has some stand-out academic programs. The Advertising, Arts and Public Affairs programs are among the best that you’ll find anywhere. The business school hosted a career fair during my visit, and it was packed with students and recruiters. The programs in education and nursing are quite impressive as well.
VCU has the added plus of offering a $10,000/year scholarship to non-residents, and the opportunity to apply test optional for most programs. It’s not hard to get into VCU, unless you want to be an artist, teacher or health care professional. But apply before mid-November if you want to be considered for scholarships, the Honors College and the more competitive programs.
VCU accepted over three-quarters of the students who applied to join last year’s freshman class. Demand for the more competitive programs pushed the average GPA to 3.7, the average SAT to 1170 and the average ACT Composite to 24. But over half of the class who submitted SATs scored below 600 on the Critical Reading and Math sections of the test. For those who took the ACT, over 40 percent scored below 23.
VCU’s non-resident tuition and fees, less the scholarship, are approximately $26,000. That’s $10,000 less than New Jersey residents would play to go to Penn State, Temple or UDel. Room and board comes in just under $12,000, a good buy for a school in a fairly nice section of an urban center. Through property acquisition and new construction, VCU has grown faster than a school in a city like Columbus or Philadelphia could ever hope to do. The academic center of campus, and home to most freshmen, is around Monroe Park, a triangular entertainment and public safety center. VCU accommodates just under 30 percent of its undergraduates on campus. If you decide to move off, just show your student ID on any city bus, and you ride for free.
It might be easier to get into VCU than a school such as Ohio State, Pitt or Temple. But the retention and graduation rate are not quite the same. VCU has retained between 83 and 86 percent of the freshmen classes that arrived between 2014 and 2018. The four-year grad rate improved from 36 percent for the freshman class than arrived in 2010 to 45 percent for the class that came three years later. Over 60 percent of the classes that arrived in 2012 and 2013 finished in five years.
These numbers tell me that students face obstacles, whether financial or academic, to finishing on time, and might be leaving with more debt than they hoped. VCU is comparable in campus setting to a school like Ohio State or Pitt. But those schools are also graduating over 60 percent of their freshmen on time.
One reason for these numbers: VCU isn’t cheap for Virginia residents. Resident tuition and fees are just below $15,000. They might be tempted to take fewer credits and work more hours while pursuing a degree. On average the students who graduated in 2018 owed over $32,000. That’s not bad for those who started a graduate degree over that time. But that debt is high for only an undergraduate education.
Given the debt, retention and graduation rates, VCU needs to create their unique version of Temple’s Fly in Four program for the majors where students should finish on time. Fly In Four was backed by a commitment to offering more advising, small grants and free enrollment in classes that were needed to complete a major, if the scheduling requires you to stay for an extra semester. Other urban schools, like Rutgers-Newark, have committed to providing the “last dollar in” when state and federal grants cannot cover need. A program like that would help, too. Like Temple and Rutgers-Newark, VCU takes pride in the diversity of its student body, and access to quality education. But those schools appear to further ahead in building a support structure to turn students into alumni.
VCU has also ventured quite recently into engineering. These programs sometimes take more than four years to finish. VCU started engineering instruction in 1996 with newer equipment, and a new engineering building is under construction. But Virginia Tech has been educating engineers for over 150 years. That university currently produces a fifth of our nation’s professional engineers. I had to ask myself: Doesn’t Virginia Techt have a larger network of employer contacts for engineering, even in and around Richmond? On the flip side, you have to leave Blacksburg to do co-op to get the work experience that VCU students can reach by bus. You’ll also have less competition in the class room. VCU has around 1,800 undergraduate engineering students compared to over 9,000 at Tech.
If you want to work in the health professions, and especially if you’re interested in a BS/MD program, this university is definitely worth a look, even of you do not come from Virginia. The same is true if you’re interested in business, engineering, computer science, cybersecurity, pharmacy, public policy and teacher education. They’re all well networked in the Richmond area. It’s very easy to have more than one internship or practicum while pursuing your degree.
One nice thing about a city school is that you can take classes day or night around a work schedule. But VCU has the alumni loyalty found more in common with a commuter school. Only five percent of alumni made a contribution to their alma over past two years, about the same as alumni of Temple or Rutgers’ Newark campus. For comparison, Ohio State had a 15 percent alumni giving rate; the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities rate was eight percent.
With an out-of-state enrollment less than ten percent, I had to wonder if many VCU students were already from the Richmond area. Parking decks were more conspicuous here than they were at schools such as Ohio State, Pitt or Temple. The heart of a metro area with 1.3 million people, and home to state government, a biotech park and seven Fortune 500 companies, Richmond is certainly large enough to deserve a responsive city university. VCU is that and more.
Much like Ohio State in Columbus, VCU is the major educational institution in town. It’s also the major provider of medical care in the city, much like Ohio State is in Columbus. The university has nearly 60,000 Richmond-area alumni registered in LinkedIn.com. The alumni community in and around Washington DC is also quite large, with over 20,000 registrants. There’s also more than 3,900 registrants in and around New York City, which really surprised me. There’s more than enough alumni in DC, the Big Apple, and even Philadelphia, to organize watch parties when the men’s basketball Rams are on TV. They cracked the Final Four nine years ago, entering the tournament the hard way, by having to play an extra “play in’ game. Since then the VCU men have made seven more appearances in the Big Dance under three head coaches.
Aside from several academic programs, scholarships that make it price competitive, and access to internships and jobs, perhaps the best part of VCU is Richmond. While Richmond is smaller than other cities that host other universities that students consider, it has a thriving arts, cultural and culinary scene as well as First Friday festivals each month and ethnic festivals throughout the year. Departures magazine called Richmond America’s Next Great Food City in 2014 and was named a top world food travel destination by National Geographic two years later. The metro area is large enough to attract major concerts and entertainers as well as host minor league baseball and a major NASCAR race.
I found a lot to like about VCU, and saw a lot of promise to the school. But it really helps to have some understanding of city life and some ideas about your major to take advantage of the best that the university and community have to offer.
Report Card: Virginia Commonwealth University
- Four-Year/Six Year Graduation Rates: C/C
- Freshman Retention: B
- Costs: B (residents)/A (non-residents)
- Curriculum: A
- Community: A
- Comforts: B+
- Connections: A (Richmond and Washington DC)/B (Mid-Atlantic states/C (elsewhere)
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