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WCU rides wave of new applicants

Over the past three years the applicant pool at Western Carolina University has nearly tripled. The increase in prospective students signals a success story in outreach and marketing, and it may also mark a transitional moment for the school.

According to Sam Miller, vice chancellor for academic affairs, WCU has capitalized on a new recruiting model.

“What accounted for it was we completely changed the way we did our admissions process,” said Miller.

Beginning in 2008, the university contracted with a marketing firm that specializes in college admissions to help increase its applicant pool.

“The big difference was in the past, we would mail our admissions material to a list we purchased from SAT or some other entity and that was the first time a student had heard of Western Carolina University,” said Miller. “Now we’re reaching out to students through a variety of means in their sophomore year in high school.”

According to Miller, the school’s 2007 re-branding strategy and the increased visibility of some of its programs –– like the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band –– laid the groundwork for success even before the new admissions procedures were in place.

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Once the new processes were implemented, the applications began to roll in. In 2006, WCU received 4,830 applicants from prospective freshmen. This year administrators project the number will be close to 14,500.

Because of the state’s financial straits, admissions staff has had to cope with the volume without adding personnel. According to Mark Anderson, who manages the admissions office, they’ve had to fill the gap by using technology more intelligently and improving communication.

“We work harder, but much smarter and more efficiently,” Anderson said. “Success breeds success, and our staff members are very proud of the work they do.”

The new recruiting system has also allowed the admissions staff to target prospective students who have already expressed strong interest in the university and lure them to campus for open houses and other events.

That point of contact makes for a better ratio between applications and admitted students, which is an important part of growing enrollment.

“Attracting students who have expressed interest in WCU yields a larger number of admitted students,” Anderson said. “At this date, we are on target to grow undergraduate enrollment for a second straight year.”

WCU has been targeted by the state university system for growth, and Miller said it’s prepared to meet its enrollment goals.

“Clearly some of the larger UNC campuses are probably not looking to grow much more because they’re about as big as they want to be,” Miller said.

On Saturday, Anderson’s staff welcomed 1,136 visitors to the campus for the second of its fall open houses. The visits result in students who know what they’re getting when they sign up to come to WCU.

“What our staff is hearing — whether during an Open House, a campus tour or one of our regional recruitment events across the state — is that people are attracted by the affordability WCU offers and the dynamic, unique blend of academic majors available at WCU,” Anderson said. “Prospective students and their parents are very aware of all the new buildings and construction on campus, what a beautiful place Cullowhee is, and that the total student experience is possible at WCU.”

Getting more high school students to campus before they make their college decision has also enhanced the school’s visibility around the state. Miller said WCU has laid the groundwork for growth by adding to its student infrastructure and building its applicant pool, and he says the poor economy has led students and their families to bargain hunt as they look at college options.

“When you compare the tuition and fees across the board, we feel we stand out as a value on the dollar,” Miller said.

For now, Miller said WCU’s admissions strategy is to grow enrollment slowly so the school can maintain the quality of its product.

“I think we certainly could have accepted more students but we’ve deliberately tried to hold back a little bit,” Miller said. “The trends show that parents and students are paying much more attention to the educational value for tuition.”

Increasing the quality of the student body is a byproduct of the smart growth model, not a sign that the school wants to radically change its identity in relation to the other schools in the state university system.

“We’re trying to stay right in the middle of the pack with the other UNC systems,” said Miller.

According to Miller, WCU’s leadership wants the school to grow in a way that ensures the students are getting an experience unique to the place and what it offers.

“In the UNC system there’s great school with many different degree programs,” said Miller. “We encourage them to make a choice where the student feels right in the campus community. We want it to be the right fit.”

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