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Despite pandemic, WCU sets new enrollment record

For the ninth time in the last 10 years, Western Carolina University is starting the year with a record high enrollment — despite earlier concerns that the Coronavirus Pandemic could cause a decrease in enrollment.

“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.”

As of the 10th day of classes Aug. 27, 12,243 students were enrolled at the school, a slight increase over the 12,167 students enrolled at the same point last year.

The growth is driven in part by an all-time high retention rate, with 81.57 percent of last year’s freshman class returning for the fall semester, up from the previous record retention rate of 80.06 percent.

An increase in graduate and distance learning students has also contributed to the high enrollment. The number of distance learning students rose from 2,460 in fall 2019 to 2,594 this year for a 5.45 percent increase. Meanwhile, graduate enrollment increased by 1.65 percent, a boost that is likely due in part to the new master’s degree program in experiential and outdoor education, which now enrolls 21 students. Increased graduate enrollment is likely to continue through the spring. Currently 521 graduate students are enrolled for the spring semester, 80 more than at the same point last year.

The overall increase in enrollment comes despite a substantial drop in first-time, first-year students and transfer students. The number of first-time, first-year students plummeted 14.5 percent from last year’s tally to 1,780, and transfer student enrollment dipped by 7 percent to 929.

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.

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