WCU enjoys a surge in popularity

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

When Callie LaDue started shopping for a college, there was only one school that she had her eyes on — Western Carolina University.

“I liked it because it was a small campus but it wasn’t too small,” said the freshman biology major.

Moving to a small mountain town that was close to her hometown of Charlotte was another reason LaDue wanted to go to Western.

“It’s only two hours away from home,” she said.

LaDue is one of the 1,260 students that enrolled as freshmen at WCU for the 2007-2008 school year. Administrative officials were banking on enrolling 1,550 students but fell short of that goal by a small margin. However, there’s no chance the school will fall short for the fall semester of 2008.

“Our demand far exceeds our capacity this year,” said Alan Kines, WCU’s director of undergraduate admissions.

Workers at the admissions office have been sifting through piles of freshman applications. The university had received 6,388 applications as of Feb. 11, almost double last year’s number of 3,908.


A sudden spike

University officials attribute the sudden spike in freshman applications at WCU to a new marketing plan. The university has hired a Virginia-based consulting firm, Royall and Co., to help find students who would enjoy attending the small mountain university for the next four to five years, Kines explained.

The university previously attracted students by search and fulfillment practices, which is a tool that many universities use. When a student takes his or her SAT or ACT, they complete a survey. Based on the results from the survey, university officials would buy student names that meet the university criteria for acceptance. The university then mails information to these individuals to entice them to attend.

Under the new marketing plan, an extensive database owned by the consulting firm is used by admissions officials to fine-tine their search. The database contains the most recent information about students, which allows officials to target those that would be more inclined to attend WCU, Kines explained.

“We are just filling the bucket better,” he said.

Even though the university is seeing a spike in freshman applications, it doesn’t mean the WCU will be overrun with students. The university plans to enroll 1,550 students, which was its goal for last year.

“We are being very deliberate about keeping the class at a number we can house, feed and continue to have a teaching ratio of 14 to 1,” Kines said.

Additionally, the new marketing plan has university representatives hitting the highway in a statewide promotional campaign.

“We are going into areas where we can maximize the message,” Kines said. For instance, the university decided to market itself to students in Wilmington instead of Fayetteville. The move was prompted by information gathered from the consulting firm.

“We are not guessing anymore,” he said.


Different reasons

However, the university’s new marketing plan did not entice LaDue to attend WCU. She learned about the Cullowhee campus when she was in middle school.

“I had some family members come here,” she said.

The university is making an effort to increase its out-of-state enrollment. Officials are starting to reach out to students who live in Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, Florida and New Jersey.

By searching for students in North Carolina and out of state — which is increasing the number of applicants — the university is able to be more selective about who it accepts. That means higher-achieving freshmen.

“The bottom line is we want better students to teach,” said Dr. Fred Hinson, senior vice chancellor of enrollment management at WCU.


System-wide spike

Western is not the only University of North Carolina system college to experience a surge in applicants. Applicant numbers are also up at Appalachian State University, said Paul Hiatt, director of admissions. Last year the university had 12,946 applications and enrolled 2,725 students. University officials are banking on this number to go up, which is causing them to bump enrollment by a small margin of 50 students.

As of last week, the university had more than 14,000 applicants for the fall 2008 freshman class and officials expect that number to rise.

“It looks like we’re getting close to 15,000 applications, and we may get as many as 16,000,” Hiatt said.

Hiatt also attributes the university marketing plan for the increase in freshman applications.

“We have a pretty extensive marketing approach,” he said.

The university hosts several workshops promoting the school in major metropolitan areas.

“We travel and do mass mailing throughout North Carolina but also the Southeast as well as the Northeast and Midwest,” he said.

Over the past four years officials at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro have seen an increase in freshman applications as well.

“UNCG has enjoyed a steady and robust growth in applications for admission and enrollment over recent years,” said Steve Gilliam, assistant vice chancellor of university relations at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. As an example, freshman applications increased 24 percent—from 8,191 to 10,151— in the four-year period from fall 2003 to fall 2007. The size of the freshman class during the same period has increased 19 percent from 2,055 in 2003 to 2,445 in 2007, he said.

And university officials are expecting freshman applications to continue to rise for 2008. The university has received 8,539 applications as of Jan. 31. Last year at this time the university had 8,856 freshman applications and enrolled 2,446.

However, UNCG’s admission policy is quite different than other state university when it comes to freshman class size.

“UNCG will admit all qualified applicants and does not have a limitation on the admitted freshman class size,” said Gilliam.


Raising the bar

The academic standard to be accepted into the freshman class at WCU is on the rise as more students want to attend the school.

“We have much higher metric scores in regard to SAT and GPA scores,” Kines said.

Kines said Western is moving to the pool of top state universities, which will give high-achieving students another option for college.

“These kids have a choice of were they want to go,” Kines.

The average SAT score for WCU has risen 37 points from last year. As for GPA, the average for last year was 3.6 and this year students have a 3.71.

Officials say an advantage to high test scores and better students is that professors can teach a much more advanced curriculum.

“Students are better prepared to rise to the level of instruction,” Kines said.

Brian Railsback, dean of the WCU Honors College, says the difference is noticeable.

“The academic profile of the freshman honors student keeps on going up,” Railsback said.

The Honors College accepts 150 students a semester.

“We have raised the GPA requirement to a weighted 4.0,” said Railsback. “This is the highest for an Honors College in the state. Students who are high achievers are looking to Western.”

Railsbacks says more students are looking at WCU because of its professors and the university’s high-profile programs. Those include construction management, education, criminal justice, and health sciences. Officials are also expecting the new motion picture program to also grow quickly, Hinson said.

Requirements elsewhere send students to WCU

However, some freshmen at WCU say they wound up in Cullowhee because they did not get accepted at their first choice college. That’s what happened to Meredith Troutman of Fayetteville.

Troutman, a biology major, wants to become a marine biologist. She wanted to attend UNC-Wilmington but was not accepted. She decided to go to WCU for her undergraduate degree.

“It’s a change of scene,” she said. “I’ve never lived in the mountains, and the people are really friendly.

Since Troutman plans to become a marine biologist she will have to transfer to another school to complete her degree.

“I am going to have to transfer at some point,” she said.

Just as schools like WCU, ASU and UNCG are experiencing a surge in freshman applicants, so are schools like UNC and North Carolina State. Students who used to have the credentials to get in those schools are being turned down and end up at a college that wasn’t their first choice.

Freshman Garrett Powell of Charlotte is at Western because he says “it was easy to get into.”

Powell did not apply to any other state university. He says he liked WCU because it was located in the mountains.

“It’s real laid back here,” he said.

Powell is majoring in the university’s entrepreneurship program. It’s this specific program that attracted him to consider Western for his degree.

“Its not offered at many places,” he said.

The academic requirements to attend Appalachian State University are similar to Western. Students must have an average GPA of 3.8 and must have score of 1,190 on their SAT’s. Admission workers also look at the student’s entire application and make a decision based on a variety of factors, they said.

At UNCG, the average SAT score for the fall 2007 freshmen class was 1,039.


Staying is the hard part

At any university, many freshmen tend to drop out of school during their first year. At Western, 12 percent of the 2007 freshman class has dropped out.

LaDue’s roommate has already dropped out. She lives in Walker Hall and says that the dormitory is becoming a lot quieter since the beginning of the school year.

“There are at least six people on my floor that have lost their roommates,” she said.

LaDue says many of her freshmen classmates have dropped out after skipping too many classes.

“You have to go to class if you want to stay here,” she said.

Officials says the dropout rate at WCU is low, but Western is also a small school. Hinson says that more students are staying at Western because they want to be at the university.

“We are getting students who love the town of Cullowhee and want to be here,” he said.

He also says that the school works very closely with students through its advising department to help them when problems arise.

At Appalachian State, about 13. 4 percent of the freshman class has dropped out so far. At the University of North Carolina Greensboro the school had 10.4 percent of students leave after one semester.


Changing times

As more students look to WCU to be their alma mater, professors at the school are seeing new dynamics take place in the classroom. At least that’s what Dr. Richard Starnes, professor of history, has experienced in several freshman classes he teaches.

Starnes says the higher SAT and GPA scores are making an impact in the classroom.

“Five years ago the freshman tended to be more drawn from Western North Carolina,” he said. “But now we are seeing a good level of students from outside WNC. We are getting a good mix of urban and rural kids together, which is creating a good mix of diversity.”

Starnes says the new mix of students is creating a synergy in humanities classes

“That diversity is allowing us to explore issues that we might not otherwise have looked at years ago,” he said.

Beth Huber, director of freshman year composition, says first-year students are creating a positive impact in the classroom setting.

“I have seen quite a dramatic increase in academic preparation,” said Huber, who has been teaching English composition for the last three years.

She says more students are taking the subject more seriously and are not missing class like previous freshman classes.

“The students are writing better. I can see it,” she said. “They are working harder and they seem to want to do so.”

“Whatever the process the university is using, it’s working,” she added.

However, Jim Addison, an Honors English professor, says he has not see a change in the student’s academic performance.

“It’s been the same,” he said. Addison has been teaching at WCU for 28 years.

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