The size of the student body at Western Carolina University is at an all-time high, with the university posting a record total enrollment this fall that is getting a boost via a corresponding record in freshman enrollment.
Total enrollment at WCU now stands at 10,806 students, smashing the old record of 10,382 students set in the fall of 2014. WCU’s freshman class this year totals 1,913 students, surpassing the old mark of 1,859 students set in 1972 during an enrollment boom near the end of the Vietnam era.
University officials’ expectations of record enrollment numbers were confirmed Friday, Sept. 2, when the figures for fall were released by WCU’s Office of Institutional Planning and Effectiveness, which compiles official census statistics for reporting to the University of North Carolina system.
Although classes began at the university Monday, Aug. 22, enrollment numbers are not official until after the 10th day of classes, referred to as “census day.” Even then, the numbers are not written in stone until any errors have been corrected and files submitted to UNC General Administration.
This year’s total enrollment increased by 466 students over last year, a 4.5 percent jump. That surge is driven in large part by a nearly 18 percent increase in the number of first-time, full-time freshmen. This year’s freshman class grew by 289 students over last year.
Phil Cauley, WCU’s director of student recruitment and transitions, said many factors contributed to the size of the freshman class, including some that are external, such as growth in the numbers of high school seniors. This year’s increase also involves strategic moves taken by the WCU Office of Admission, he said. With most North Carolina high school juniors now taking the ACT college admissions test, which focuses on overall achievement rather than a student’s ability to take a standardized test, the admission staff was able to reach out to more students who have academic and co-curricular interests that would be a good fit at WCU.
Also, the Office of Admission revamped its communications with potential students and school counselors and strongly encouraged students to visit campus. As a result, attendance at open house events and for weekday campus tours increased over prior years, with those coming to campus having a chance to see construction taking place on several exciting building projects, he said.
In collaboration with WCU’s Honors College, invitations for students to join that program for high-achieving students went out earlier and to more applicants, Cauley said. To attract other prospective students, scholarship information and awards were sent out earlier, academic programs across campus expanded outreach efforts, and numerous offices joined in recruitment initiatives.
“The old adage ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ can be amended to ‘it takes a campus community to attract and retain a student,’” he said. “Of course, word-of-mouth is the best advertisement, and the enrollment and retention gains that WCU has made in recent years mean more continuing students and graduates are sharing WCU success stories with friends, relatives and colleagues.”
The “retention” referred to by Cauley is the freshman-to-sophomore retention rate, the percentage of fall 2015 freshmen who returned this fall to start their sophomore years. WCU’s census report indicates that retention has remained steady since last year at just over 80 percent. That figure has risen about 14 points in the last decade.
Another factor in the growth in total enrollment over last fall is an increase in the number of students taking graduate courses offered by WCU. That number grew by 7.6 percent, from 1,519 students in 2015 to 1,635 students this year.
Brian Kloeppel, dean of WCU’s Graduate School and Research, said the jump in graduate enrollment is a result of a combination of factors including the quality of the academic programs, an increase in resources targeted toward marketing and student recruitment, and an effort to streamline application steps and reduce hurdles to enrollment.
Even though WCU’s enrollment numbers for this fall have just come in, the admission staff is already deep into the next student recruitment cycle and is working on contacting students who might be interested in being part of the freshman class of 2017, Cauley said.
WCU’s online student application was activated in mid-August, and more than 2,400 high school students already have submitted applications. Also, the high school college fair season is getting cranked up and admission counselors are hitting the road to talk to prospective students at events around the state and Southeast, he said.
“We encourage interested high school seniors to make application during the early action period, which ends on Nov. 15,” Cauley said. “The early applicant has the greatest opportunities to be considered for admission and for other opportunities such as the Honors College and scholarship consideration. With changes to federal financial aid regulations, applying early is especially advantageous since students will now be able to complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (also known as FAFSA) beginning in October, as opposed to having to wait until January.”
Prospective students will have an opportunity to see what college life is like at WCU by attending an Open House scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 19, or one of two others to be held in early 2017, on Feb. 25 and March 25. More information and registration is available at openhouse.wcu.edu.
Also, WCU representatives will be going on the road Monday, Sept. 12, through Wednesday, Sept. 14, to introduce WCU to prospective students during evening events in Greensboro, Raleigh and Charlotte. Information about those events is available at ontour.wcu.edu.
By Randall Holcombe