Archived News

WCU projects larger freshman class for 2023

WCU projects larger freshman class for 2023

A After years of enrollment and retention numbers impacted by the pandemic and its associated restrictions, Western Carolina University expects to see the rebound continue when students return to campus this fall.

“The first-year cohort is on pace to be the largest entering class since COVID and has the potential to be one of the top three largest fall first-year cohorts,” Provost Richard Starnes told the WCU Board of Trustees’ Academic Affairs and Personnel Committee during a June 8 meeting.

No numbers are official until “census day,” which is the 10th day of classes in the new semester, but Starnes expects WCU to enroll about 2,100 first-year students for fall 2023. That figure would represent a roughly 10% increase from the 2022 cohort , which itself was a 12.5% jump from 2021. First-year enrollment was at its highest in 2018 and 2019, the two years after the N.C. Promise Tuition Plan  was enacted but before the Coronavirus Pandemic arrived.

Starnes also projects that the freshman-to-sophomore retention rate will continue to climb after suffering a smackdown during the pandemic. Following a slew of low retention figures in the early 2000s, WCU made a concerted effort  to boost that metric, reaching 81.4% in 2019. But fewer students returned for a second year after the pandemic arrived, with freshman-to-sophomore retention falling to 74.6% for the 2020 cohort and 71.3% for the 2021 cohort.

“We’re seeing a rebound back to what I would call closer to what we expect is normal,” Starnes said.

For the fall 2023 semester, Starnes said WCU has seen an increase in applications from out-of-state students and expects to fill all 483 out-of-state first-year slots it’s allowed under rules set by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors . Applications from North Carolina students have declined slightly, but the percentage of commitments has increased.

Related Items

“We’re closing the deal with more North Carolina residents,” Starnes said. “It’s been a very active spring with campus tours.”

Meanwhile, transfer applications have faltered, something that Starnes believes reflects “softening” enrollment at community colleges statewide. In fall 2022, total enrollment in the North Carolina Community College System was 89.5% of what it was in fall 2019.

Though fall 2023 is expected to bring a larger freshman cohort, the overall student body will likely be smaller than in 2022. This spring, WCU graduated its second-largest class in university history, after graduating its largest-ever class in 2021. Based on a four-year graduation timeline, the remaining students all come from the smaller cohorts that enrolled after the pandemic’s arrival.

Enrollment on census day in fall 2022 was 11,635 — Starnes expects the fall 2023 figure to fall somewhere in the “low to mid 11,000s.”

“Enrollment, particularly with undergraduates, is much like compound interest,” he said. “If you’re paying it and it goes down, it goes down quickly. But if you’re getting it, then it kind of compounds on the other end. So the larger the first-year classes, the greater the enrollment, sustainability, the support for the enrollment arc over time.”

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.