Going Up

Western Carolina hits a major enrollment milestone

By PAUL CLARK

A record 10,000-plus students are enrolled at Western Carolina University this academic year, a milestone the university has long planned for, even as it was charting its way to an even bigger future. “At more than 10,000 students, it’s hard to think of Western Carolina as a ‘small’ college anymore,” said Melissa Canady Wargo, the university’s chief of staff and co-chair of a master planning committee that has been preparing a roadmap for WCU’s development in the years ahead.

Enrollment for fall semester was up across the board, among first-time freshmen, undergraduate transfers, graduate students, distance education students and students taking classes at the university’s facility at Biltmore Park. The new class of first-time, full-time freshmen increased to 1,614, contributing largely to the grand total of 10,107 students who now study on and off campus at Western Carolina. Student retention also has played a huge part in the university’s swelling numbers. (Although the university announced in September its fall semester enrollment as 10,106, subsequent data clean-up revealed an administrative error pushing the official enrollment figure to 10,107.)

“Students coming to Western Carolina and staying at higher rates indicate that we’re doing something right,” said Phil Cauley ’83 MS ’90, director of student recruitment and transitions. “It tells us we’re on the right track for meeting the students’, campus’ and community’s needs.” The 10,000-student mark gives the university the critical mass it needs to produce the educators and health care professionals needed by families and retirees attracted to Western North Carolina, Cauley said.

Enrollment of that magnitude signifies that WCU is now emerging as “a destination campus,” university officials said. They also acknowledge that with growth come challenges and opportunities – factors that WCU has been planning for even before its current master planning process. And that planning is a good thing. Never before has WCU drawn so many people to campus in Cullowhee, prompting questions of how it will accommodate increasing numbers of students and their need for more space.

Enrollment Growth

Following the blueprint

The university’s “2020 Vision: Focusing Our Future” strategic plan is a blueprint for improving lives and enhancing the region through education, research and cultural activities. Out of that plan will come WCU’s new master plan to guide the development and improvements of the campus over the next several decades. Both plans consider how Western Carolina’s growth will affect Cullowhee, the community that surrounds the university.

Growth certainly is on the mind of administrators throughout the University of North Carolina system these days. Student recruitment, retention and graduation are increasingly important as administrators adjust to the state’s new performance-based funding formula. Increasing enrollment and improving student performance are among the key ways that the university will get additional dollars from the state, said Carol Burton ’87 MAEd ’89, associate provost for undergraduate studies. WCU already is dealing with less. The university’s state appropriations for 2013-14 were cut by 4 percent. That $3.25 million loss would have been greater had the university not received funding credit for degree efficiency – that is, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded per 100 full-time equivalent undergraduate students. Western Carolina also received funding for hitting its enrollment target for the year.

Growth is vital, but it will not come at the expense of the individual student, Chancellor David O. Belcher emphasized during his Opening Assembly address at the start of the academic year. “As we grow, we must not let go of what is an institutional value – the intense focus on the individual student,” Belcher said.

Campus Tours

Campus tours and open houses, which bring prospective students and their parents to visit WCU, are an important part of the recruitment process.

Retention leads the way

Senior Miles Olson, a communication major from Asheville, was hanging out near McKee Building recently with two classmates. The three were taking a break from studying for a midterm exam when talk was directed toward the record enrollment. Olson flipped through his phone to find an email he’d gotten from his department’s administration. Because of budget cuts, communication majors needed to work with advisers now on planning their next two year’s worth of classes, the email read.

“I’ve never seen that much detail in an email from the ‘comm’ department,” Olson said. “They want everyone to be that focused on what classes they’re going to be taking.” That’s partly because classes will fill up faster, said Jack Williams, a philosophy major from Sylva on track to graduate in 2015 and who was studying with Olson.

Olson agreed. “The university seems to be more invested in making you care,” he said. “There seems to be more of a desire on the university’s part for you to take your classes seriously, now that there are more people here.”

Retention of existing students is one reason why Western Carolina made its big enrollment leap. Freshman retention rates increased to nearly 79 percent in fall 2013. That’s five percentage points higher than the previous year and seven points higher than the year before that. Retaining students so that they meet their academic goals always has been a part of Western Carolina’s institutional mission. But the university has redoubled its commitment in the past year or so, reorganizing a unit of the Division of Academic Affairs to focus on retention issues. It also appointed Lowell Davis, formerly assistant dean of students and assistant to the vice provost for academic affairs at the University of Alabama, to lead the effort.

“College is not only a financial investment, it is an intellectual investment as well,” said Davis. “As an institution, we need to ensure that we are returning the investment students are making by making sure they are equipped with all the tools they need to be gainfully employed. It should be the goal of any college or university that its students graduate in four years.”

Davis oversees academic advising, the Registrar’s Office and the OneStop Student Service Center, as well as various student success programs including First Year Experience, Writing and Learning Commons, the Math Tutoring Center and Disability Services. Responsible for making sure retention rates remain high, Davis is overseeing a new “fifth-week” program to offer help to students whose grades are not what they could be five weeks after a term begins.

The university’s Academic Success Program helps incoming freshmen acclimate to their new lives with a six-week session prior to their fall semester. All told, it offers first-year students 18 months of guidance and support, beginning the day they are accepted into the university. (Similar support is provided to sophomores and juniors through Western Carolina’s EXTREMES program.)

The university’s PEAKS program is a first-year residential experience that helps freshmen adjust to college life, succeed academically and make friends in their halls and throughout the university. The staff in its Office of Academic Initiatives, also administered by the Department of Residential Living, provides first-year students with study tips, resources and overall guidance to help them shine in the classroom. Western Carolina has streamlined the first-year experience so that students have what they need to go forward.

“We’re always looking for potential obstacles to a student’s staying in school,” Cauley said. “Whether it’s campus or finances or student life in general, we’re looking for ways that we can improve a student’s experience. That has the benefit of improving our retention rates.”

To help increase retention, Western Carolina last year revamped its promotional material to make it clearer what Western Carolina is – and what it isn’t. “For instance, we want to make sure that a prospective student from Charlotte or Raleigh doesn’t think we are a major urban area,” Cauley said. The university also tweaked entrance requirements to attract high school students with excellent grades. The Great Grades Guarantee provides admission to top-performing high school students who meet additional requirements. It puts proven performance over potential as demonstrated through scores on standardized tests.

Class Size

Increased laboratory and classroom space for chemistry and other sciences is a priority in the university’s master plan for future campus development.

Class sizes and parking spaces

But with growth comes pressure. Senior Amy Griffin’s chemistry class is “packed out” and her calculus class also is large, she said recently, getting a last bit of sunshine outside Hunter Library before heading in to study. “Last year, we had classes that were big, but not with every seat filled like it is now,” said Griffin, a biology major who commutes daily from off campus in Cullowhee. “And the parking is awful. If you get here after 10 a.m., you can’t find a parking spot, so you walk forever. But all these people, it’s good for the school. If they could fix the parking situation, it would be perfect.”

“Parking is a chronic issue on college campuses. Western Carolina is no different,” said Robert Edwards ’77, vice chancellor for administration and finance, who is leading a study of campus parking issues. A parking deck may be in the university’s future, said Edwards, noting that parking is being addressed in the master plan. And yes, Burton said, class sizes have increased, with introductory courses for specific majors (also known as “gateway” courses) and liberal studies general education courses (particularly in the sciences) the most affected. But overall the increases have been relatively small, she said. Of the 1,586 organized undergraduate course sections offered in fall 2013, only four course sections had more than 100 students. That’s an increase of only one from the previous year.

“Larger enrollment prompts us to take stock of how we can ensure that the quality, experience and value for students continue to be at the highest level,” Burton said. A few classrooms have been renovated to accommodate larger sections. Other rooms have undergone smaller, technological renovations that enable professors to teach more students without diminishing anyone’s experience, Wargo said. She and Cauley noted that many more improvements will be included in the master plan, which was due for consideration by the university’s Board of Trustees at its December meeting.

The master plan will address issues related to new building needs, utilization of existing space, parking and transportation, technology infrastructure, sustainability, safety and security, preservation of campus heritage and integration of the campus with the surrounding community. Launched in fall 2012, the planning process is meant to guide the campus improvements through the next decade, as well as its land use for several decades. The process already has shown a need for more residential facilities, dining options and science classrooms and laboratories, Wargo said.

Western Carolina has 4,054 beds, and as of mid-fall semester 2013, it had 3,922 residential students for an occupancy rate of 97 percent – which is right where it should be, say leaders in the Department of Residential Living. They also say that, between on-campus housing and a growing number of off-campus options, the university community has about the right number of beds to accommodate its students. What it needs, however, is updated and renovated residential space. That’s why building new residence halls and renovating existing ones must be part of a strategic growth plan that considers where services on campus are needed most, said Keith Corzine ’82, assistant vice chancellor for campus services. The upper campus would be the likely spot for any new residential buildings, which would provide “swing space” while others are renovated or replaced, he said.

Buchanan Hall, built in 1959, is a candidate for replacement or renovation. On the lower campus, Scott Hall, built in 1969 and home to about 700 freshman men and women, is the largest residential hall at WCU. Built in 1972, Walker Hall, the other large building that visitors see when they drive into the campus’ main entrance, houses about 400 men and women. Harrill Hall, built in 1971, reopened in fall 2012 with green and energy-efficient renovations.

Renovating an existing hall without first adding a new one would likely mean the overall loss of beds, Corzine said, because older dormitories were built prior to existing building codes and their demands for more bathroom space, handicapped accessibility and other characteristics of 21st-century construction. The formula used to determine whether to renovate or replace is complicated, he said, as are some of the decisions to be made as a result of record enrollment. “Our goal is to fill the beds with high occupancy rates, and with that comes some challenges,” he said. More students mean less latitude for residents who want to change rooms for whatever reason. “So you spend a lot more time working with residents through any conflicts,” he said. Corzine and his staff also are working on dining decisions that will affect the university’s future.

Growing pains and hunger pangs

Dining Hall

Longer lines at campus dining venues are one of the signs of increasing student enrollment.

Senior Tyler Butler feels this year’s record enrollment at Western Carolina University mostly around lunchtime. “You can tell the university has gotten busier by the food lines,” Butler said this fall as he waited for a plate of steamed veggies and rice at Panda Express in the lower level of Courtyard Dining Hall.

“It’s drastically different from last year,” Butler, an engineering technology major from Hickory, said. “You go to the University Center about 12:15 p.m., the lines are ridiculously long. But, given the amount of students, you’re going to have that. You’ve got to wait a bit longer.”

Like an army, a student body marches on its stomach. Western Carolina has increased the quantity and quality of its dining options through its Courtyard Dining Hall with a cafeteria and food court, the A.K. Hinds University Center Food Court, and several grab-and-go choices scattered around campus including at the new Health and Human Sciences Building on the West Campus. But with WCU’s increasing number of students, all that may not be enough, according to planners.

A new dining hall likely will have to be built, Cauley said, possibly on the historic hill part of campus. It’s possible it could be built into the existing Brown Building, which was once a cafeteria itself. But Brown isn’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, so it would need major renovations and likely an addition, Cauley said. Where a new dining hall goes, when it will be built and how many people it will serve will be guided by the master plan, Corzine said. But indications are that a new dining hall needs to be located on the upper end of campus, where any new residence halls might be sited, and it must have the capacity to serve the more than 1,668 people who currently live in upper campus communities.

Planning for dining also has to take into account changing tastes and schedules. How often a seat “turns over,” or makes way for the next student to sit, depends on how much time students give themselves to eat and hang out with friends. That could change, but building quality into the equation never changes, Corzine said.

“It’s critical to maintain a good dining experience,” he said. The university wants to minimize a student’s waiting in line and wants to deliver nutritious, tasty, well-prepared food in a variety of experiences that today’s cuisine-savvy students expect. All of which WCU is doing now, Corzine said. “I’ve been really pleased with the feedback that we’ve had so far this semester,” Corzine said. “Obviously, we have more people to feed. But from a strategic point of view, we’ve been looking at how dining is going to evolve and what we need to do about it.”

Centennial Drive

The WCU master plan proposes reinforcement of the existing academic core of campus and reconnecting that core to the historic hill area of WCU, as seen in this artist’s rendering of what the Central Plaza and Centennial Drive area could look like in the future.

Growing with Cullowhee

Western Carolina’s success in attracting and retaining more students has certainly had an impact on the surrounding community of Cullowhee. The unincorporated Cullowhee grew by 40 percent in the decade between 2000 and 2010 and is now home to about a quarter of Jackson County’s population. Jackson County grew by 22 percent during that period, the largest rate of growth in North Carolina’s 16 westernmost counties.

In response to growing enrollment, private developers built two new student apartment complexes in 2013. Additions to existing complexes brought the total of new beds for students off-campus to 350, said Gerald Green, Jackson County planning director. The Jackson County Planning Board has approved a 490-bed student housing complex about a mile from campus. There are plans for a subdivision near the university with 282 single-family houses and townhouses, Green said.

“The growth of Western is certainly fueling the growth of the county,” Green said. His office is leading a community planning effort meant to fold the university’s growth into Cullowhee’s. Some of those efforts are already under way. Last spring, the county started developing a community park near the university. In September, it began work on a greenway to connect Cullowhee to Sylva. It is identifying buildable land near the university in the hopes that it will be developed to accommodate people who want to be within walking distance of the university. Those future residents will also want to walk to shopping, dining and entertainment, Green said.

Working toward the same ends is CuRvE, a community effort to beautify and revitalize the area along Old Cullowhee Road by the Tuckaseigee River. Years ago, when the road held the main entrance to campus, it was lined with shops that catered to students and residents. Known as downtown Cullowhee, it began shutting down, business by business, after the university moved its main entrance to the new four-lane N.C. Highway 107, finished in 1981, on the other side of campus.

CuRvE (Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor) is working to bring shops, restaurants and entertainment venues back to Old Cullowhee Road. Its volunteers are building support for sidewalks that would connect historic Cullowhee to the campus, as well as for paths that would tie into the future Jackson County greenway. Its efforts may get the nudge from a state Department of Transportation project to replace an aging bridge over the river.

The project could be the first domino that gets the larger revitalization effort going, said CuRvE chairwoman Mary Jean Herzog, who also is a professor at Western Carolina. The bridge project, scheduled to start this winter, could trigger money for a river park with fishing spots, picnic tables, trails, boater access and parking. CuRvE has received grant money to study the economic impact that such a park would have, Herzog said.

The timing for a new entertainment district is good. A countywide alcohol referendum that passed in May 2012 has created possibilities of making Cullowhee more alluring for restaurants. Changes have already happened. Tuck’s Tap & Grille, opened by four Western Carolina grads, and Cullowings, a sports grill, both began serving customers in summer 2013 within walking distance of campus. Nearby Rolling Stone Burrito and Mad Batter Bakery & Café have added beer and wine to their menus, helping foster a college-town feel. The future of those businesses is uncertain, however, after a Nov. 21 fire damaged the building in which they are located, which formerly was home to a popular hangout known as “The Townhouse.” The university is awaiting word from state insurance and construction officials on the structural integrity of the building and a financial assessment of the damages.

Playing more of a role in the creation of formalized community leadership for Cullowhee is one of the goals listed in Western Carolina’s 2020 plan. It calls upon the university to partner with civic leaders “in the development and revitalization of Cullowhee and Jackson County, with specific emphasis on developing a community core around the campus aimed at improving the quality of life for faculty, staff, students and the community.”

The university did just that a few years ago when it bought a commercial strip on Centennial Drive near the center of campus. Among the private businesses that lease space there is Mad Batter, which on a recent crisp fall afternoon prior to the November fire was buzzing with students getting coffee to go. Sophomore Emily Jaynes was across the street on campus, looking at all the students around her. Western Carolina’s record enrollment was obvious, she said.

“It’s definitely visible,” Jaynes said. Every day, she sees far more people than she did her freshman year walking to class, studying in libraries and hanging out in the Central Plaza in the middle of campus. “And it’s not just a midday kind of thing,” the criminal justice major from Morganton said. “You see people everywhere, from around 10 in the morning to late at night.”

Western Carolina’s planning efforts meant it was ready when enrollment topped 10,000 students, Cauley said. And ongoing planning will help the university grow for decades to come. “We’re not looking to explode. We want planned growth,” Cauley said. “We’ve always looked for ways we can improve.”