Emmanuel Mahgerefteh has wanted to attend Virginia Tech for as long as he can remember.
When he was accepted after applying early to the engineering school, he was thrilled. So were his parents. But an email he received two weeks ago has led him and his family to re-evaluate his plans for next fall.
Last month, Virginia Tech offered about 1,500 incoming in-state freshmen financial incentives to delay enrollment after the school over-enrolled by more than a thousand students. Nearly 8,000 students accepted offers from an admission cycle of over 30,000 applicants.
Expecting around 7,000 acceptances and factoring in the usual “summer melt” of 400 students, school officials had a goal class size of 6,600. But people kept accepting after the target number was hit, right up until the May 1 deadline.
The select group of students who received the incentive offers are enrolled in some of the most populous majors — engineering, biology and University Studies (undeclared). They had until last Friday to show interest in three options: taking a gap year with a $1,000 scholarship, enrolling in a year of free community college or registering for free summer courses while taking the fall or spring semester off. All options would guarantee that the students start at Tech the following year.
Mahgerefteh was with his friend, who’s also planning to attend Tech next fall, when he opened the email. They both originally brushed it off. But when he showed his parents later, they were enthusiastic about the idea of an alternative plan. The ability to attend a local community college for free seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up.
“My father … when I initially told him, he’s like, ‘Oh, 100% you should do this. It’s a great offer,’ ” Mahgerefteh says. “You’d be saving so much money, you’d get to be back home. And then from there, I was just struck with so many mixed thoughts.”
This is a relatively unconventional solution for a university to pursue after over-enrolling a class, according to Alec Thomson, vice president of the National Council for Higher Education. The usual course of action is to try to adapt the campus’s existing infrastructure, like turning double-occupancy dorm rooms into triples.
Virginia Tech has already outlined additional changes it will implement to accommodate the influx of students. The requirement for freshmen to live on campus has been withdrawn, and plans to convert study lounges into multiperson dorm rooms have begun. The school is also adding sections to in-demand courses, hiring additional faculty and investing in advising and support personnel.
School officials predict that less than 10 percent of students who received the offers will accept one. Thomson said this outcome is about what he would have expected given the coinciding circumstances needed to make the options appealing.
“You would really have to have two factors at work there,” Thomson says. “That A) Virginia Tech is really the only place you ultimately wanted to go, and B) that you have the ability to essentially delay your university training … you have some alternative plan that you’re willing to undertake there. And I suspect that the number of people in that category, when presented with that option, is relatively low.”
Mahgerefteh is one incoming student in that category.
Because Mahgerefteh already has a year’s worth of credits from community college classes he had taken in high school, an additional year of community college would make him a junior in the fall of 2020. He’s worried about missing out on essentially two years of learning alongside his future classmates.
“At Virginia Tech, I’m surrounded by engineering,” Mahgerefteh says. “They have so many things outside of the classroom — they have projects; they have different programs, internships; they have competitions, you know, so much more stuff just than taking the class and getting the credit.”
Still, he can’t ignore the benefits that choosing the community college option would mean for him and his family.
“If I went to community college, you’re saving a lot of money, because that’s a year of no tuition, that’s a year of no housing, dining, and that saves upwards of about $20,000,” Mahgerefteh says. “I’d be transferring with my associate’s [degree], and there’s a lot of scholarships you can get. It’s a huge financial incentive.”
Dannette Gomez Beane, director of recruitment and operations at Virginia Tech’s Undergraduate Admissions Center, has been advising students mulling over this decision. She has been meeting with parents and students and fielding numerous phone calls — she says some families call three to five times in the same day.
She says these offers weren’t meant to appeal to everybody but are good for students who were already exploring ways to make college more affordable. They also aren’t binding. Beane said students can change their mind later on. And students who don’t choose any of the options will still be able to enroll in the fall as planned.
“We’re saying, ‘Have conversations around the dinner table, figure out what is the best fit for you and your family at this moment in time. These are just additional options,’ ” Beane says. “And that’s just exactly what they are, they’re options, so they can walk away at any time if they’re not what they had in mind in the following year.”
Because Virginia Tech and the Virginia community college system have a close partnership, Beane says, students who spend a year at community college will receive a similar educational experience to one at Tech. She says an articulation agreement between the engineering program and the system in particular ensures that courses transfer and that students receive additional benefits.
Last weekend, the Mahgereftehs visited Virginia Tech to talk to admissions officials like Beane about the offers. There’s still a lot of uncertainty, Mahgerefteh says, but things are less intense. They plan to return to the campus before the June 21 deadline to go over more questions directly related to transferring into the engineering program.
“At first, there were a lot of emotions, but we’ve kind of calmed down now and are trying to figure out which is the best option,” Mahgerefteh says.
Mahgerefteh says he and his parents are giving both possibilities careful consideration. They have until June 21 to decide where he will be come August.
He says he knows his father will be happy if he chooses to go to Virginia Tech. “But it’s always going to be something that’s circling in the back of my head, and in his mind,” Mahgerefteh says. “Like, ‘Oh, what if we took that offer?’ ”
Abigail Clukey is an intern on NPR’s National Desk.