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Enrollment dips again at WCU

Western Carolina University is seeing a decline in both graduate and undergraduate enrollment. WCU photo Western Carolina University is seeing a decline in both graduate and undergraduate enrollment. WCU photo

Spring 2023 enrollment at Western Carolina University is down 3.6% compared to the spring semester last year, according to a headcount taken on the 10th day of classes this semester.

The university is attributing the 391-student decline to larger-than-normal numbers of December graduates and the pandemic’s ongoing impact on student and family finances. WCU graduated 1,308 students in December 2022 — 471 more than in December 2021. 

“The university’s data show a significant uptick in graduation count year over year,” said Tim Metz, assistant vice chancellor of institutional planning and effectiveness. “With more students graduating, there is the impact of fewer returning students the next term.”

In total, WCU has 10,586 students enrolled this semester compared to 10,977 last year. This number includes a 7.2% decline in the number of graduate students and a 2.9% decrease in the number of undergraduate students. However, Brian Kloeppel, dean and professor of the Graduate School and Research, noted that there were enrollment increases in the doctor of psychology program and in health and human science fields such as the doctor of physical therapy program and master’s programs in social work, athletic training and health sciences. 

Enrollment data show that the decline came entirely from students who attend in-person classes. These students comprise 74.2% of the student body, and their numbers decreased 4.7% compared to spring 2022. Distance learning enrollment increased slightly, by 0.6%. Of first-time, full-time freshmen in fall 2022, 87.1% returned for the spring semester. That’s an improvement from the 86.5% fall-to-spring retention rate in 2022 but still well below the 91% norm in the years leading up to the pandemic. 

While spring 2023 has brought reduced enrollment among both men and women at WCU, the gender ratio has slid further in favor of women as men become an increasing minority on campuses nationwide. Only 41.1% of spring 2023 students are male, the lowest percentage of any semester on WCU’s publicly available database, which goes back to 2007. 

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Prior to the pandemic, WCU was routinely setting enrollment records as its beautiful surroundings, growing academic profile and comparatively low cost began to attract increasing numbers of students. Enrollment hit its peak in fall 2020, with 12,243 students. Since then, it’s declined each semester. 

Similar trends have been at play at the state and national levels. Total enrollment for the University of North Carolina System peaked in fall 2021 — a bit later than WCU’s fall 2020 peak — and has declined each semester since. The National Center for Education Statistics shows a 3.3% drop in total enrollment at institutions of higher learning subject to the federal Title IX law between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic years and a 1.7% decline between 2020-2021 and 2021-2022. 

However, WCU’s trends could be in the process of reversing. In May, the university graduated its largest class in history. The remaining students were members of smaller, pandemic-influenced cohorts, but in fall 2022 WCU welcomed 1,913 first-time, full-time freshmen, a 12.5% increase from the 2021 cohort and the largest freshman class since before the pandemic. 

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