Early on in his tenure at Western Carolina University, Chancellor David O. Belcher became known on and off campus for a few key phrases that made it into almost every speech he delivered. Belcher always would remind faculty, staff and supporters that “we are in the business of changing lives.” He always would close with an enthusiastic “go Cats!” And, he would never miss an opportunity to remind his audience that “Western Carolina University is growing.”

It wasn’t simply a statement of fact but rather a statement of pride, often delivered as he leaned forward toward the microphone and rose his eyes above his glasses to connect with the crowd. That look said a lot. It reminded the audience that WCU’s growth trend sets it apart from other universities in the country and even the University of North Carolina System. It inferred: WCU is growing, and others are not.

That was, and is, a fact. Since 2010, U.S. college enrollment has been falling. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment dropped by more than 812,000 students nationwide between 2010 and 2014. That’s not the story at WCU. During the same period, Western Carolina’s total enrollment climbed more than 10 percent. That growth all happened during the first three years of Belcher’s tenure as chancellor. In total, from his fall 2011 arrival to fall 2017, WCU’s enrollment grew nearly 18 percent.

“David’s leadership, his vision for the university and the incredible energy he brought to our campus have changed Western Carolina University in immeasurable ways,” said WCU Board of Trustees Chair Patricia B. Kaemmerling ’71. “There’s no doubt in my mind that his infectious enthusiasm for Western Carolina University is part of what has driven our enrollment growth.”

So, if the university can credit a portion of its enrollment success to “the Belcher effect,” what else has played a role? Certainly, the chancellor himself would be the first to say WCU’s enrollment growth has been a group effort.

Phil Cauley ’83 MS ’90, assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate enrollment who has worked in and around Western Carolina admissions for nearly three decades, said he has been asked countless times what has “caused” Western Carolina’s growth. His answer always is the same: “It’s not any one thing you can point to. It’s a combination of things.”

Cauley’s list of contributing factors includes infrastructure and facility changes, new degree programs, increased academic quality, campus safety, affordability, the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band, the Honors College, the attractiveness of WCU’s location in the mountains of Western North Carolina, and an increased focus on marketing and admissions outreach.

A fall survey of the 2017-18 freshman class confirmed many of Cauley’s assumptions and shed some light on what is motivating students to choose WCU. When asked how 18 various factors played into their decision to attend Western Carolina, more than half of freshmen listed each of these six attributes as either being the deciding factor or playing a large role: academic program availability (78 percent of responding students), academic program quality (78 percent), affordability (67 percent), location (63 percent), university size (53 percent) and faculty quality (53 percent).

Cauley said he wasn’t surprised that the top two deciding factors were academic program availability and quality. “One of the first things a prospective student wants to know is ‘do you have my program,’” he said. “If we don’t have the right program, or if our program isn’t strong, we fall off their list.”

WCU’s “2020 Vision” strategic plan and a 2012-13 academic program prioritization process, both set in motion by Belcher, helped to identify exceptional programs to target for expansion. That list included emergency medical care and nursing, among others. WCU’s EMC and nursing programs are two on a list of 10 programs that have added 100 or more students since 2007. Nursing has more than doubled in that time, adding 488 students.

Other programs on the highly diverse “top 10 for growth” list are accounting, athletic training, biology, business administration and law, criminal justice, marketing, music and psychology. WCU also has added new degree programs in the last two decades, notably engineering and forensic anthropology, both of which have seen explosive growth since they were introduced to the campus.

Brian Railsback, chair of the Faculty Senate and former dean of WCU’s Honors College, said he sees academic program quality directly linked to No. 6 on the list of attributes that matter to students: faculty quality. “I think overall the perception of academic quality has improved dramatically since I got here in 1990,” Railsback said. “We’ve made huge progress. Much of that progress is because of the faculty we’ve been able to attract.”

Photo Credit: Keith Kuntsmann

There’s also a connection, Railsback said, between quality and infrastructure – one of the factors Cauley mentions. Although infrastructure was not included in the student survey, several students mentioned facilities such as the Forensic Osteology Research Station (more commonly known as WCU’s “body farm”), the commercial music studio and the Health and Human Sciences Building in their survey comments. Railsback said the HHS Building played a significant role in the growth of professional health programs. He believes the new science building that earned $110 million in state funding as part of the 2016 Connect NC bond initiative, approved by voters thanks in part to the advocacy of Chancellor Belcher, will attract more students in the sciences. That facility is currently in the design stages, with construction expected to begin later this year.

Third on the students’ list of decision influencers is affordability, a factor that Cauley said has become increasingly important as tuition costs have gone up nationally and that was magnified during the most recent recession. Affordability ranked higher among minority students – in particular Hispanic students, a population that has seen significant growth at WCU and nationally in recent years.