After VMI enrollment plummets, admissions tests new tactics

Virginia Military Institute is wrestling with how to recruit more students after a bruising admissions cycle


Lilah Kimble

Cadets march outside in front of onlookers on VMI’s campus. This year’s incoming class is composed of 375 cadets, a steep drop from the typical class size of roughly 500.

Shauna Muckle, Editor-in-Chief

At the beginning of the 2022-23 academic year, The Washington Post revealed a bombshell statistic: Virginia Military Institute’s freshman class was 25% smaller than the preceding year, at 375 cadets. 

The decline in enrollment came after The Post shed light on an independent investigation of VMI’s “racist and sexist” culture last year.

As The Post reported, the investigation found that racial slurs and racist jokes are “not uncommon” at VMI and are “at times excused by administrators based on a lack of diversity in the cadets’ upbringing.”

According to The Post, VMI’s superintendent, retired Army Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins, listed potential reasons for the decline in enrollment in a presentation at the beginning of this school year. Some of those reasons included: “VMI brand reputation tarnished in various media outlets” and “ideological differences among a divided alumni base.”

Col. Bill Wyatt, VMI’s spokesperson, reported that the college received roughly 200 fewer applications in its 2021-22 application cycle than usual. Typically, the college receives 1,500.

The Post also reported that VMI’s yield rate, or the number of accepted applicants who choose to enroll at the college, dropped from 53% in 2018 to 43% in 2022.

The decline in applications isn’t contained to VMI, Wyatt said. Diverse, a publication that covers higher education, reported that the U.S. Naval Academy saw a 20% drop in applications for the class of 2026. The Air Force Academy saw a 28% decline, while the U.S. Military Academy at West Point had a 10% drop.

Those military colleges managed to maintain their enrollment counts, however. Wyatt said enrolling a 500-person class would have required compromising VMI’s admission standards.

“We could have gotten to that 500 number, but what does that look like?” Wyatt said. “Are we taking people who really don’t want to be here and aren’t going to be successful here?”

Wyatt said there are a number of factors depressing interest in a military education: an overall drop in college enrollment during the pandemic, as well as a decline in high school graduation and interest in military service.

Wyatt called the admissions landscape a “perfect storm” of adverse factors for VMI.

Still, not all military colleges have seen reduced applications. Applications for VMI’s main rival, The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., increased from nearly 2,600 in 2021 to 3,500 this year, the Post reported. The school’s freshman enrollment rose from 693 to 790.

A spokesperson for The Citadel told The Post that the negative publicity surrounding VMI may have boosted enrollment.

Though Wyatt said many of the issues affecting enrollment are cyclical, the college is still reforming how it recruits applicants.

The admissions department has formed teams composed of an admissions counselor, senior administrator, alumni, parents and faculty representatives. Each team is calling prospective applicants to add a “personal touch” to recruitment, Wyatt said.

VMI is also recruiting in areas it hasn’t before, including Virginia cities with a large Navy presence like Norfolk and Tidewater.

“We want to cast a wide net and also look for opportunities to build a new pipeline,” Wyatt said.

River Carroll, ’25, a member of VMI’s wrestling team, said that morale hasn’t changed at the school, despite the steady stream of negative publicity last year.

Carroll said there’s a decisive divide between cadets that succeed at VMI and cadets that struggle.

“If you’re one of those people that’s extremely motivated and just kind of endure the suffering, VMI’s definitely the right choice,” Carroll said. “If you don’t have that mentality, then I don’t think VMI is the right place for you.”

Struggling cadets can often be identified by their poor grades and disengagement from student life at VMI, Carroll said.

Carroll said that dropouts are common at VMI as cadets realize military college isn’t for them. His wrestling team lost three or four people in between first and second semester last year, he said.

“With a recruiting class of 10, and [that many] not to come back, that’s a pretty big deal,” Carroll said. “It’s definitely noticeable.”

Carroll said accusations that the school is pursuing a liberal agenda with its recent changes, like removing the statue of Stonewall Jackson that once stood right outside the barracks, has turned off conservative applicants, who constitute much of the student body.

VMI has its first Black superintendent, retired Army Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins. The college also appointed Black chief of staff, J.M. “John” Young.

Enrollment statistics compiled by Carroll show that the decrease in enrollment hasn’t been even across ethnic groups. While white enrollees decreased 20.3% between the 2021-22 and 2022-23 academic years, from 344 to 274, Black enrollees increased from 24 to 47 over the same time frame. Meanwhile, incoming Asian cadets rose from 20 in 2021 to 31 in 2022.

Last year, 6% of VMI’s 1,650 cadets were Black. Women constituted 14% of the student body.

“Diversity is important to us, but that’s not the only factor in our recruiting,” Wyatt said. “What we want to find are people who’ve taken a rigorous academic course load, who’ve shown leadership, who want military experience at that higher education level.”