Opening Notes

Looking back and looking ahead

It is a tradition in our society that, as the end of a calendar year draws near, we reflect on the year just ended even as we look forward to the year ahead. As we at Western Carolina University approach the end of this fall semester, we take this moment both to celebrate 2013 highlights and to contemplate opportunities on the 2014 horizon.

As you will read in this issue, after consecutive years of gradually increasing enrollment, the total number of students taking classes at WCU has shattered previous records to reach an all-time high. As of Sept. 3, the official census date, 10,107 students were on the books, marking the first time in university history that student numbers had crested the 10,000 mark. Equally impressive is the fact that enrollment was up in all categories – including first-time freshmen, transfer students, returning students, distance education students and, bucking the trend nationally, graduate students.

Record enrollment symbolizes the next step in the growth of our university, but there is much more at stake. Enrolling, retaining and graduating students result in benefits for individuals and for society. National statistics have demonstrated for years that college graduates, on average, make far more in lifetime earnings than those with less education. Studies indicate that those with higher levels of education tend to live healthier lifestyles, vote more consistently, and contribute more to their communities. And a Western Carolina graduate is prepared for life as a productive citizen, able to think critically, solve problems, make thoughtful decisions, and adapt to change in a time when change is the only constant.

In addition to societal benefits, enrollment growth is important institutionally. To be blunt, size matters in the current budgetary climate in which the percentage of public universities’ budgets derived from state appropriations is decreasing. The state generally is in a position to contribute enrollment growth funding to assist universities whose enrollments increase, and more students attending the university means more students paying tuition and fees. Thus, enrollment growth equates to more funding, which enables the university, operating strategically, to accommodate the larger number of students. And as Western Carolina grows, we must and will ensure that the university remains true to its most deeply held commitment to provide a first-rate educational experience for its students, which at WCU means that we will continue to nurture intentional relationships between individual faculty and students.

One of the most exciting aspects of our enrollment growth this year is that our retention rate, the percentage of freshmen returning for their sophomore years, has risen dramatically – from 73.6 percent to 78.7 percent, a huge jump in a single year. Simply put, a larger number of students who start their educations at WCU are staying for the sophomore years – and beyond. This is good news, particularly as retention is becoming an increasingly important factor as the state moves toward a performance-based funding model in which appropriations to public universities will depend upon how well we perform on selected metrics, including retention and graduation rates.

Although funding is important, retaining and graduating our students form WCU’s core mission, and I must salute the faculty and staff whose demonstrated commitment to our students and their success has resulted in our achievements on this front.

Thus, enrollment and retention are among the big stories for 2013, and they will remain big stories in 2014, a year of an important milestone – the 125th anniversary of the founding of the institution that became Western Carolina University. We intend to celebrate our birthday all year long through a small number of unique events and by linking regularly scheduled activities throughout the year to the anniversary. For example, 2014 also marks the 40th year of Mountain Heritage Day, and this great annual festival will have a 125th connection. Our first regional conference will take place in September, and tying that new endeavor to the anniversary is a natural and concrete manifestation of the university’s tradition of external engagement and service to Western North Carolina. As we celebrate the institution’s legacy, we will focus on its future trajectory and on where we, together, can take WCU.

I continue to be amazed when I ponder the evolution of our university and the progress of the “Cullowhee Idea.” An institution that began in 1889 with 18 students in a one-room schoolhouse on a rugged hillside in the Tuckaseigee River valley of southwestern North Carolina has developed into a major cultural, scientific and educational force in the region and the state, educating 10,107 students. Western Carolina has made a difference in the lives of our students – and in the lives of those in the region we serve – for 125 years. I cannot wait to see the inspiring new heights that await us in the years ahead.

David O. Belcher