WCU fall enrollment tops 10,000, sets record

Students, faculty and staff gathered to celebrate WCU's record fall enrollment of 10,106 students.

Students, faculty and staff gathered to celebrate WCU’s record fall enrollment of 10,106 students.

Editor’s Note: Although the university announced in September its fall semester enrollment as 10,106, subsequent data clean-up revealed an administrative error pushing the official enrollment figure to 10,107.

It’s official. Total enrollment at Western Carolina University has topped 10,000 students for the first time in the institution’s history, a milestone reached in large part because of an increase of five percentage points in the freshman retention rate to nearly 79 percent.

Western Carolina’s total enrollment for the fall 2013 semester is 10,106, a 5 percent increase over last year’s tally of 9,608 students.

The university’s freshman retention rate – the percentage of first-time, full-time freshman students who returned for their sophomore year – is 78.7 percent this year, compared to last fall’s retention rate of 73.7 percent.

WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher announced the enrollment figures during a special event and reception held at the Central Plaza area on campus Tuesday, Sept. 3.

The enrollment record comes as the university is gearing up to mark the 125th anniversary of its founding, Belcher told the several hundred students, faculty, staff and alumni gathered for the announcement. A yearlong quasquicentennial celebration is being planned for the 2014 calendar year.

“It’s amazing to think that when this institution was founded in a one-room schoolhouse in 1889, up there on the hill, it had a grand total of 18 students,” he said. “Today, Western Carolina has grown to become a major cultural, scientific, economic and educational force in this region and in our state.”

Enrollment figures are up across the board, with increases in the numbers of first-time freshmen, undergraduate transfers, graduate students, distance education students and students taking classes at the university’s instructional site at Biltmore Park, Belcher said.

The improving enrollment and retention numbers are important, he said, because they signify that WCU is doing its part to help increase to 32 percent the number of North Carolinians who have four-year degrees, which is one of the goals of the University of North Carolina system.

“One of the things I am most pleased to see is that the number of returning students is not just up, but it’s way up,” he said. “A larger number of students who started their educations at Western Carolina last August are staying for their sophomore years – and beyond.”

Keeping students enrolled and on track to graduation has become even more important because the UNC system is moving toward performance-based funding, with graduation and retention rates among the factors that will determine how much money WCU and other universities will receive from the state, he said.

In addition, the fact that more students are choosing to attend WCU – and are remaining enrolled and on track to graduate – also provides evidence of the rising awareness of the university’s academic quality, its value and its focus on student success, Belcher said.

“It’s an indication of the quality of our academic programs and shows that students want to be here. Frankly, look around you,” he said to those attending the announcement on a sunny September day in the mountains. “Who wouldn’t want to be at a great university located here in paradise? And it’s a clear indication of the excellent work of our faculty and staff, who are here because they care about students.”

Although classes began at the university Monday, Aug. 19, enrollment numbers are not official until after the 10th day of classes. That’s when WCU’s Office of Institutional Planning and Effectiveness compiles census statistics for reporting to the UNC system.

That report indicates that the total number of first-time, full-time freshmen at WCU this fall is 1,614, a 4 percent increase over last year’s freshman class of 1,550 students.

Undergraduate transfer students are up by 7 percent, from 796 last year to 850 this fall.

Total graduate student enrollment this fall is 1,658, a 2 percent bump over last fall’s number of 1,629.

Distance education enrollment has jumped 9 percent, from 1,747 last fall to 1,897 this year.

Enrollment in WCU’s Programs at Biltmore Park stands at 524 students this fall, up 3 percent over last year’s tally of 507.

The total number of continuing and returning students is 6,817, compared to 6,500 last year.