NU president calls enrollment dip ‘disappointing,’ says ‘we go back to work’

September 6, 2018 GMT

The University of Nebraska system slid slightly this school year in the ongoing battle to boost enrollments at its institutions.

Enrollment is a vital source of revenue for colleges, and the NU system has had flat or declining state allocations over the past couple of years, placing added pressure on boosting enrollment.

Overall enrollment in the multi-university system dropped 1 percent. It also fell 1 percent at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1.9 percent at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and 1.1 percent at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Enrollment went up at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (1.6 percent) and at the tiny Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis, by 5.7 percent.

“It’s not a big decline,” Mike Baumgartner, head of the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education, said of the NU system. “Nationwide, enrollments are dipping. Everybody’s fighting for a slightly declining pool of students.”

But some institutions are doing better than others. Creighton University estimates a record enrollment of 8,865 this fall and a record for freshmen of 1,155.

Mary Chase, a vice provost at Creighton, has said her university successfully pushed to recruit more Nebraskans and Omahans this year.

But Chase said she doubts that Creighton’s effort hurt NU. Creighton, she said, is “a small player” in NU’s pool.

Shannon Goaley, a Creighton freshman from Omaha, said the NU system has a good reputation. Her friends at UNO and UNL “are very excited” about it, she said.

She considered UNL, she said, but chose Creighton because it was closer to home and is a solid Catholic-sponsored university.

NU’s first-time freshmen class, a key indicator of future enrollment, is down three students to 7,911. UNO and UNK showed an increase in first-time freshmen, while UNL dipped in that category.

NU President Hank Bounds said Tuesday that his personnel will analyze their recruiting strategies and where the university lost students.

“We go back to work,” Bounds said Tuesday.

“It’s obviously disappointing that we aren’t up,” Bounds said. “And we need to be growing at a time when we’re facing fiscal stress.”

Bounds said competition is fierce for a generally flat number of potential students. “It’s competitive everywhere, inside the state of Nebraska and outside.”

He said his own son, Will, a solid student and senior at Lincoln East High School, has been pelted with information and contacts from universities. “It’s literally universities from across the country,” the president said.

The system’s president also said he didn’t know if a widely publicized conflict a year ago at UNL hurt enrollment. In that conflict, a graduate student-lecturer belittled a sophomore recruiting students for the conservative Turning Point USA.

The undergraduate photographed and videoed the confrontation, and the incident received national coverage. The American Association of University Professors later censured UNL for not giving the graduate student a formal hearing before her peers. She was removed from the classroom and not invited back this year.

UNL’s enrollment dropped 1 percent to 25,820 this fall.

“My gut says that (those) things didn’t help,” Bounds said. “To steal a phrase from (football coach) Scott Frost, ‘We need unity and purpose.’ ”

He also speculated that public colleges’ argument with state leaders such as Gov. Pete Ricketts over state allocations might have had an effect on enrollment.

“We can’t say for certain, but it didn’t help,” Bounds said.

David Drozd, a demographer with the UNO Center for Public Affairs Research, said numbers of Nebraskans of typical college age have declined since 2010. That is now turning around and will increase over the next 10 years or so.

The rise, Drozd’s projections indicated, will be in prospective minority students, while there will be a gradual decline over the next 15 years in prospective white students.

Last year UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green trimmed his enrollment goals for UNL. Green had said he wanted to hit 35,000 students by 2025. But he altered that last year to between 29,000 and 31,000 with an “aspirational goal” of 32,500.

UNO Chancellor Jeffrey Gold said Tuesday that his predecessor, John Christensen, had set an “audacious and aspirational goal” of 20,000 by 2020.

Gold, who is serving in a long-term interim capacity at UNO while he’s also chancellor at UNMC, said growth is important. He and his staff are reassessing their plan for growth at UNO, he said.