A stroll through campus on late summer afternoon with classes in session revealed no single reason behind the increase, despite a scattergun suite of strategies aimed at getting students to stick around for their sophomore year.
“I just really like the location of the campus,” said 19-year old Garret Goodwin, a sophomore from Statesville.
The location of WCU in the Smoky Mountains, one of the region’s prime spots for outdoor recreation, is an asset the university recruiters are trying to wield to their advantage. But it’s not the only reason students like Goodwin decided to return.
For him, it was also about the small-campus atmosphere and accessibility to professors.
“It’s smaller than most campuses, and you can have a one-on-one with professors,” he added.
Though students using WCU as a stopover before transferring to another more prominent university has been a perennial problem, Goodwin said it never crossed his mind.
WCU students Amanda Emery and Delaney Mason, both criminal justice majors, aren’t looking to transfer either — in fact, they had just transferred onto campus. After completing courses at nearby Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, moving those credits to WCU was a no-brainer.
Once on campus, Emery couldn’t help but be drawn into the exciting buzz that comes with the start of each collegiate fall. It become one more reason she has her sights set on graduating from WCU.
“There always seems to be something going on here, and it’s in the mountains and close to home,” Emery said.
Only 15 percent of incoming freshman at WCU come from a 13-county area in WNC. The majority are from the eastern population centers of the Raleigh and Charlotte area. About 7 percent are out-of-state.
Ellen Dyar is from way out of state. From Juneau, Ala., the sophomore sought out WCU for its musical theater program and the work of Broadway-actor-turned-WCU-professor Terrence Mann. She had such a pleasant freshman experience she made the journey from the far north for at least one more year on campus, and hopefully two more.
“I had a really great first year — it was a good fit for me,” Dyar said. “We have a really, really fantastic program.”
None of the students asked about WCU’s drawing cards mentioned the newfound availability of alcohol in Cullowhee, which was dry until last year. Whether alcohol sales closer to campus is truly a non-factor — or whether underage sophomores simple wouldn’t fess up that is has made a difference in college life — isn’t known.
But if WCU wants to keep the momentum and build on its retention rate — it jumped by more than 5 percent this year — the weight rests on the shoulders of the new freshman class and whether or not they’ll come back. Judging by a Thursday afternoon in September at least one group of freshman dudes were pretty sure of it. When a reporter asked them if they were sophomores and would they be willing to do an interview, one student replied.
“Talk to us next year, we’ll be sophomores,” he said.