The return rate of freshmen students at WCU went from 73 percent to nearly 79 percent this year. The increase in freshmen who stuck around for another year is one for the WCU record books. The previous high-water mark was set in 2008 at about 76 percent.
Despite devoting resources to tackle the retention rate, which has lagged behind other sister state schools, many WCU faculty are still a bit stunned the numbers jumped like they did.
“It took a huge bump,” said interim Provost Beth Tyson Lofquist. “We anticipated it would go up — we did not anticipate it would go up this much in one leap.”
In raw numbers, 1,550 full-time students came on as freshmen last year. And about 1,230 of them returned this year. That’s about 100 more returning students compared to the previous year.
So what swayed those additional 100 students to come back as sophomores?
Lofquist listed the litany of strategies the university has employed in recent years to keep freshmen around — from early intervention for freshman with faltering grades to promoting participation in clubs and study groups to higher selectivity when choosing incoming freshmen. The recent retention data tells her something must have worked right, but picking out just what is a task yet to be tackled.
“I don’t want people to think we’re bumfuzzled about it — we’ve done a lot, and it’s paying off,” she said. “Now, we’ve got to figure out which strategies have brought the most returns.”
The retention rate bump led to another record-setting stat for WCU. Coupled with a large incoming freshman class and a 9 percent increase in online students, enrollment topped the 10,000 mark at WCU for the first time this fall.
Other theories for increased enrollment give credit to a blossoming night life around the WCU — alcohol sales became legal in Cullowhee in 2012 — and recent investments in student socializing areas like the campus plaza, recreation center and cafeteria. But Lofquist believes it largely has to do with the academic mission.
“If students don’t enjoy the academic programs, they’re not going to stick around,” she said. “I don’t care how good the food or the climbing wall is.”
One of the problems WCU administrators lit on was that they might have been admitting the wrong type of student in the past, said Sam Miller, vice chancellor of Student Affairs. A study from the mid-2000s showed that about one out of every four freshman attended WCU without the intention of graduating there. Rather, WCU wasn’t their fist choice, and they were looking to put in a year or two before transferring to another school.
The school began marketing its unique location in the mountains surrounded by a slew of recreational opportunities. The hope was to bring in freshmen that would stick around for the full four years. Miller said getting the right fit for students was meant to reduce the instance of “buyer’s remorse” — such as students from urban areas who didn’t like the remote mountain campus.
The university draws the majority of its ranks from the Charlotte area. Being a long ways from home as a freshman on a less-than-ideal campus is not a good recipe for success. Miller said WCU came to terms with its true colors to better understand the students it ought to be recruiting.
“We know Western is a great fit for a lot of our students, but for some students, it’s not,” he said. “If you’re looking to be five minutes from a shopping mall, you really should not come here. But if you’re interested in being in the Smoky Mountains, rafting and hiking near campus, then we’re probably a good fit.”
The university also tweaked its selection standards, placing more emphasis on grades and work ethic than test scores, said Carol Burton, co-chairwoman of the Enrollment Planning Committee. As a result, the average SAT score of incoming freshman has declined slightly during the past three years while the average high school GPA has risen.
Burton wondered if the efforts are starting to pay dividends.
“SATs are not the best predictor for college success,” she said. “It doesn’t show they have the staying power or desire to continue.”
To get a good pool of freshmen candidates, Burton said WCU tried to increase the total number of applications it receives as well. In 2012, WCU had more than 15,000 freshman applicants, trailing only two other state universities — N.C. State University and UNC-Chapel Hill — and in a dead heat with East Carolina University in the number of applicants.
WCU had roughly 3,000 more applicants than Appalachian State in 2012 for a freshmen class roughly half the size.
In many ways, it’s a numbers game because one-third of students who apply as freshmen to WCU are accepted, but only about one in four actually enroll. Starting with a bigger pool gives the university more options when it’s writing those acceptance letters.
“We’re doing a much better job of attracting the students that can academically perform but also want to be on our campus,” Burton said.
The increase in the freshmen retention rate is undoubtedly a positive sign for the school, which has historically lagged behind other state institutions like Appalachian State, which hovers in the high 80s.
What Burton did acknowledge, though, was the possibility that the bars popping up in Cullowhee, on WCU’s doorstep, might be in some way linked to the retention rate hike. Though alcohol may not be due too much of the credit, the promise of a college-town atmosphere may have pushed some students over the edge who had reservations about sticking around.
“Yes, I do think students are thinking there are local bars, and we can be adults and hang out,” she said. “That might be the carrot.”
Although, that reasoning shouldn’t have been on the mind of freshmen returning for their sophomore years because, legally, they’re not old enough to drink, Burton pointed out.
As a goal, WCU was shooting to have a freshman retention rate of 80 percent by 2020. Burton hopes the school will have to up the bar before too long. But sustaining this year’s retention for another academic cycle, and not backsliding, would more than put the school on track, Burton said.
“We would be ecstatic if we could stay at 78,” she said. “I hope it’s something we can sustain.”