Ten WCU degree programs have added 100 or more students in the last decade

WCU’s undergraduate and graduate nursing programs have seen booming growth in the last decade.

On Sept. 5, when enrollment is finalized, Western Carolina University expects to announce record-breaking enrollment for the fifth year out of the last six. The university also anticipates being able to officially report growth of more than 20 percent in the last decade, a trend completely counter to enrollment declines happening across the country. In our series, WCU Thrives, we explore some of the programs and people that have played a role in this incredible momentum.

Today, we take a look at some of the specific degree programs that have seen the largest growth in students in the last decade.

 For those who have followed Western Carolina University’s growth in the last few years, there probably is one particular program that may come to mind: nursing.

Both WCU’s undergraduate and graduate nursing programs have boomed in the last decade, fueled in part by the university’s state-of-the-art Health and Human Sciences Building that opened in 2012. The number of undergrad students in pre-nursing or nursing programs climbed from 346 in 2007 to 834 in 2016, according to institutional data. Nursing graduate programs also have seen growth. It’s definitely a success story, demonstrating how WCU has stepped up to meet a serious need for baccalaureate-trained nurses in the region with high-quality programs that draw in students.

But nursing is only one of many program success stories at WCU. In fact, a look at program growth since 2007 reveals a list of 10 highly diverse degree programs that have added 100 students or more over the decade: accounting, athletic training, biology, business administration and law, criminal justice, emergency medical care, marketing, music, nursing and psychology. (The list excludes new programs, including engineering, which we’ll cover elsewhere in the WCU Thrives series.)

Three of the top 10 programs – business administration and law, criminal justice and emergency medical care – are offered online, which has contributed to growth. (We’ll explore more about the growth of distance education later in our WCU Thrives series.) Beyond that, there’s no cut-and-dry research to explain why each of these programs is growing.

The emergency medical care program, which recently celebrated its 40th year, continues to be a big draw for students.

Doug Keskula, dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences, which houses two top 10 programs – nursing and athletic training – said some of these programs may help attract students to WCU while others earn popularity once students are on campus.

“Certainly nursing, physical therapy and social work are well-known programs and often times people come here because of that,” Keskula said of programs in his college. “We have some other programs that are really great programs that people maybe don’t know as much about, like environmental health. I always ask people, ‘Did you come here because of environmental health?’ They say, ‘No, I took a class and I fell in love with it.’ I think we have both of those. We have people who come here because of a program, and then we have people who come here and discover something.”

Although it doesn’t make the list of programs that have added 100 students or more, environmental health has grown 144 percent since 2007. Graduate social work is up 103 percent.

George Brown, dean of the College of Fine and Performing Arts, has seen similar trends in his college. While only music made the top 10 list by head count, the stage and screen program has grown 291 percent, theatre 72 percent and art 172 percent. Much like Health and Human Sciences, Fine and Performing Arts benefits from relatively new facilities. The Bardo Arts Center and fine art studios opened in 2005. Brown also pointed out that WCU’s nationally recognized Pride of the Mountains Marching Band is a huge draw for music majors as well as non-music majors. (More on that later in our WCU Thrives series.)

“I believe our growth is the result of exceptional programs that engage our students in hands-on creative expression, and outstanding faculty who are working professionals and scholars who give our students personal attention as well as offer quality training and education,” he said.

The idea of hands-on, experiential education carries over into each of the high-growth programs and may help explain why these programs have contributed to WCU’s growth.

Biology, for example, delivers plenty of in-the-field experience, thanks in part to Western Carolina’s proximity to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and nearby forestlands. (Check out one student’s research on salamanders.) The psychology program offers hands-on experience through its on-campus McKee Psychological Services Clinic. Athletic training students work with actual patients in partnership with Harris Sports Medical and Physical Therapy, which is based in the Health and Human Sciences Building.

In the College of Business, Dean Darryl Parker said each program partners with area businesses to provide applied student projects. The college’s programs in marketing and accounting made the top 10 list along with business administration and law. Other business programs, including entrepreneurship, computer information systems and hospitality and tourism, have outpaced WCU’s overall growth.

“I think it’s because our programs do client-based projects, and our students like the engagement where they are working on real projects with real companies, Parker said. “When I got here in 2012, we had 917 students in the college and last fall we had 1,947. We’ve added more than 1,000 students in the last five years.”

Parker said those client-based experiences also deliver jobs post-graduation, which appeals not only to prospective students but also to parents. Keskula agreed: “Most of our students are able to find employment very quickly upon graduation. For many of them, they’re trying to choose between multiple jobs. I think that’s really attractive for people.”

Ultimately, Keskula said, no matter the program, students are attracted to the people and the place: “You have great faculty, great facilities, and you’re in a beautiful place. Who wouldn’t want to come here.”