CULLOWHEE – Western Carolina University is experiencing what Chancellor John W. Bardo characterized as “unprecedented growth” in the institution’s 114-year history, both in the total number of students enrolled at the university this fall and in the academic qualifications of those students.
“This year, we expect a class of about 1,500 freshmen. The university expects to see growth in the class of more than 20 percent, while at the same time, the current average SAT score is up 11 points over last year,” Bardo said in his annual state-of-the-campus address Thursday, Aug. 14, at the General Faculty Meeting. “As of this morning, our average SAT is 1023, which is very significantly above the state’s average (998), and for the first time above the national average (1020).” Final enrollment numbers will not be available for several weeks.
Bardo reminded the faculty that the average SAT score for entering freshmen at Western has increased by 58 points since 1995 – the year before the university launched an ambitious effort to raise academic standards, improve its academic reputation, and increase attention to individual student learning.
“The type of transformation you are making in this university is not easy. Very few others have accomplished what you are doing. It also is not quick. Quick fixes just don’t work. What you are doing is transforming the institution in real and significant ways,” he said.
“Colleagues tell me that it takes a minimum of 10 years to change the reputation of a university. And, those are not always easy days to live through. Sometimes it had to seem that there was a lot of work without much return. Well, my friends, it is truly starting to pay off.”
And the payoff is not just the biggest, brightest freshman class in university history, Bardo said. “Graduate enrollment, continuing student enrollment and distance education enrollment are all up significantly,” he said. “It looks now as if we could reach 1,450 to 1,500 graduate students this year. Again, this is unprecedented growth. As a result, we expect a total enrollment, when the data finally settle down, of around 7,600 headcount students. This shatters all previous records, and its implications for the future are profound.”
Finally, Bardo said, retention numbers – that is, the rate of first-year students who come back to campus for their sophomore years – also are up. “Our freshman to sophomore retention rate looks as though it could be up by several percent year to year. This is a very important change since Western had one of the lowest retention rates in The University of North Carolina system. It also is almost an unheard-of jump in one year.”
Bardo praised faculty members for their role in making Western a place that more and better students want to attend, and he debunked many of the long-held notions about the university’s previous lack of growth. Over the years, those have included Cullowhee’s rural location and lack of nightclubs and shopping malls, high school sweethearts gravitating toward the university attended by the significant other, and the wrong brand of items available in the food court.
“Well, if our rural location and the effects of gravity are constant, and our fruit drink or chicken sandwich of choice is a constant, and there still are no bars in Cullowhee, what has changed?” he said. “Why are more and better students choosing Western, and why are more of them choosing to stay? The answer is simple – it is you. It is every faculty member, staff member and administrator who raised expectations, focused on students’ needs and interests, and went the extra mile to improve the university.”
Thursday’s General Faculty Meeting is among the events signaling the beginning of the fall semester for faculty, who also are in the midst of departmental meetings and other academic gatherings. While members of athletics teams and the marching band already have arrived on campus for practices and residence hall student staffers are already on the job, the bulk of students hit campus beginning Saturday, Aug. 16.
The Valley Ballyhoo welcome back celebration will take place on the lawn of the A.K. Hinds University Center at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 20, with food, “yard toys,” games, live music, kayaking demonstrations and information on how students can get involved in campus and community organizations. Classes begin Thursday, Aug. 21.