WCU records highest spring enrollment

Ongoing efforts to increase the number of students who remain at Western Carolina University beyond their freshman year appear to be bearing fruit, as preliminary census numbers indicate that spring enrollment at WCU is the highest on record for that semester.

Total enrollment for the 2013 spring semester is 9,361 students, which represents a 5 percent increase over last spring’s total enrollment and which is WCU’s highest documented spring enrollment, said Melissa Canady Wargo, assistant vice chancellor for institutional planning and effectiveness.

The increase in spring enrollment seems to be driven, at least in part, by a significant improvement in the percentage of undergraduates, including first-time freshmen, from the 2012 fall semester who have returned for spring semester, Wargo said.

“Freshman fall-to-spring retention ended up at 91.23 percent,” she said. “A high fall-to-spring rate is a good indicator that our fall-to-fall freshman retention rate, a key performance metric for WCU, also will be high.”

Angi Brenton, WCU provost, characterized the spring enrollment and retention improvements as “a tremendous affirmation of the efforts made by WCU’s faculty and staff to support our students’ success and their strong connection to the university.”

“Credit extends to everyone at the university who does his or her part in making WCU a wonderful place to learn and work, from the faculty in the classroom to the residence hall staff to the facilities and grounds employees,” Brenton said. “We all are part of a great family totally dedicated to our students.”

By way of comparison, last year’s fall-to-spring freshman retention rate was 87.53 percent and the average freshman fall-to-spring retention rate at WCU over the past five years is 89.44 percent, Wargo said.

In addition to returning students, the start of the spring semester also saw 33 new freshmen and 453 new transfer students enroll at WCU, said Sam Miller, vice chancellor for student affairs.

In addition to providing evidence that faculty and staff are working to provide WCU students with great learning experiences, spring enrollment numbers show that students are taking advantage of those opportunities, said Miller. “It also points to a lot of hard work by our continuing students to stay focused on their academic goals,” he said. “The fact that so many new students enrolled this semester highlights the fact that WCU remains a great educational value and is serving the needs of its students.”

There may be a few minor adjustments in the enrollment census report, Wargo said, but the final figures and percentages for spring semester 2013 are not expected to change.

While university officials always pay close attention to enrollment, retention and graduation numbers, pending changes in the way that University of North Carolina system institutions are funded by the state are expected to put additional emphasis on those performance measures.

Western Carolina’s total enrollment for fall 2012 was 9,608 students, the first time in university history that enrollment topped 9,600. The 2012 fall-to-fall freshman retention rate was 73.67 percent, while the retention rates for fall 2011 and fall 2010 were, respectively, 72.03 percent and 73.92 percent.

Improving student retention rates has become an institutional priority, with specific goals that have been woven into the university’s strategic plan, titled “2020 Vision,” said Phil Cauley, director of student recruitment and transitions.

“Success in college means more than merely gaining acceptance to college. WCU has intensified the spotlight on attracting students who are willing and able to do what it takes to succeed and then providing the encouragement, support and resources that aid in student success,” Cauley said. “In other words, student success is everyone’s job.”

Among the recent strategies implemented to improve the student retention rate:

– Greater emphasis in the admission review process on success indicators such as high school grades through initiatives such as the Great Grades Guarantee, which guarantees a standard offer of admission to WCU for eligible high school students who maintain a cumulative ‘A’ average (3.50 or better weighted and unweighted grade-point average) and who meet all other GGG criteria and deadlines.

– College acclimation programs such as the Academic Success Program, a six-week summer session prior to the fall semester of participants’ freshman year that assists students in making a successful transition to the university; the First Year Experience, which offers 18 months of guidance and support to first-year students beginning at the time they are accepted to WCU; and Extremes, which provides similar support programs and resources to students during their sophomore and junior years.

– Student engagement efforts such as the Freshman Leadership Institute, a living/learning community that prepares incoming first-year students for campus life and campus leadership opportunities; the Center for Service Learning, which helps students participate in organized activities designed to enhance their understanding of course content while becoming a member of the WCU community; and Western Carolina PEAKS, a residential living program that helps first-year students make connections with others who share similar interests.

– Early alert programs and interventions when students show warning signs of difficulty, and a new emphasis on advisers and faculty working closely with new students.

“WCU is taking a university-wide approach to positively affecting retention and graduation rates,” Cauley said. “This spring’s enrollment figures appear to be an early indication that this unified approach is moving WCU in the right direction.”