CULLOWHEE — The typical freshman at Western Carolina University this fall has a Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) score 50 points higher and a grade-point average nearly one letter grade better than the average first-year WCU student in 1995 – the year before Western embarked on an ambitious effort to improve its academic standards.
The result is “the very best class in our history,” WCU Chancellor John W. Bardo said as part of his annual opening-of-school address at the fall General Faculty Meeting Thursday, Aug. 16.
“The average SAT of entering students this fall is right now at 1015, and the average high school GPA is a strong B-plus,” Bardo said, reminding the faculty that official numbers will not be available until later in the fall semester. “You’ll recall that the state average SAT is 998, so we are now attracting significantly better students than the typical North Carolina student who is considering going to college.”
Bardo compared the academic credentials of this fall’s incoming freshman class to those from 1995, when the average SAT score was 965 and the GPA for entering students hovered around a C-plus. The class hailed by Bardo as the best freshman class in WCU’s history includes five National Merit Scholars, 16 North Carolina Teaching Fellows and several high school valedictorians.
This year’s freshman class is expected to number slightly below last year’s class of 1,215; however, overall enrollment at WCU should be up somewhat from last year’s total of about 6,700, thanks in part to a modest increase in the number of returning students.
“I think you can see that our efforts to ‘raise the bar’ have been working very well,” Bardo said. “Data on this class also show that we are seeing a shift in the nature of students who are applying to Western. Our greatest increases in applications were from students in the upper ranks of their graduating classes. At the same time, we saw a decline in applications from students in the lower ranks. This is an important shift.”
Bardo told the faculty of a comment he overheard during a recent visit to campus by new members of The University of North Carolina Board of Governors. “During that tour, one of the board officers told the new members that over the last five years Western has become a university of choice for students from this region. He recognized that our position in the region was changing, and shared with them his excitement and pride in your accomplishments,” he said.
“We have aspirations to become the ‘university of choice’ for the state, but starting with the region is important,” Bardo said. “I hope that you, too, will take a minute to reflect on how far you have come. I’ve known for years that you are, collectively, the best faculty that any university could ask for. Now others are beginning to recognize it and respond.”
Reviewing other admissions data and quality indicators, Bardo said that the number of applications for enrollment has grown from 3,270 to more than 4,050 (or, by about 24 percent) since 1995. Western’s “acceptance rate” (that is, the percentage of applicants to whom admission is offered) is now at or below the acceptance rate of key competitors. A lower acceptance rate increases the “selectivity” of the university, which will have implications for WCU’s rankings and listings in major national guides, he said.
Bardo urged faculty members to “stay the course, keep raising the bar, and keep building enrollment” as the university works to become what Casey Hurley, chair of Western’s Faculty Senate, referred to as “an elite regional comprehensive university.”
Despite the success in improving Western academically, the fall semester does bring some challenges, Bardo said. Those include continuing uncertainty as the General Assembly attempts to deal with a statewide budget crunch; the university’s on-going efforts to increase its student retention rate, which, while improving, continues to lag behind the UNC system average; and “curriculum creep,” a gradual increase in the number of hours required in many of WCU’s majors, making it difficult for students to graduate in four years.