For the ninth time out of the past 10 years – and this fall by a small margin – Western Carolina University has experienced an increase in total enrollment, with a new record of 12,243 students enrolled for the 2020 fall semester and an all-time high retention rate.
The modest increase comes despite earlier concerns that WCU might actually see a decrease in enrollment if students decided to postpone their educational plans because of uncertainties related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on university operations.
The slight uptick in total headcount is the result of increases in the number of continuing undergraduate students, new graduate students and distance education students. Enrollment growth in those areas helped offset COVID-related decreases in the number of new first-time, first-year students and undergraduate transfer students.
“I believe that Western Carolina University’s reputation for offering a high-quality college education at an affordable price has helped us weather the storm that many institutions across the nation are facing this fall because of the pandemic,” said WCU Chancellor Kelli R. Brown. “We also are seeing a larger than usual number of applications for the coming spring semester, which I believe indicates that some students have opted to stay on the sidelines this fall to see how things shake out with the pandemic.”
According to preliminary census data, total enrollment at WCU grew by 0.62 percent this fall semester, up 76 students from last fall’s total of 12,167, which marked the first time in the institution’s history that the number of students enrolled topped 12,000.
WCU also has hit an all-time high in the percentage of first-time, full-time undergraduate students who have returned for their sophomore year, as 81.57 percent of last year’s freshman class is back in school this fall semester. The previous record retention rate was 80.06 percent.
The number of first-time, first-year students enrolled this fall is 1,780, a drop of 14.5 percent from last year’s tally. Transfer student enrollment dipped by 7 percent this fall to 929.
Among the factors leading to a 1.65 percent increase in graduate student enrollment this fall is a new master’s degree program in experiential and outdoor education, which added 21 students to the rolls, said Brian Kloeppel, dean of Graduate School and Research. “We are also making a jump on next year’s enrollment. For the 2021 spring semester, we already have 521 of our graduate students enrolled, which is up 80 graduate students compared to this point in time for spring 2020,” Kloeppel said.
The enrollment numbers are from official census statistics compiled by WCU’s Office of Institutional Planning and Effectiveness and released late Friday, Aug. 28. Although classes began Monday, Aug. 17, enrollment is not official until after the 10th day of classes, referred to as “census day.” Even then, the numbers are not considered final until any errors have been corrected and the files have been submitted to the University of North Carolina System offices.