LINCOLN — Ten thousand college students.
To put that number in perspective, that's more than the combined enrollments of Nebraska's three state colleges. It's more students than attend Creighton University.
And, perhaps most significantly, it's nearly half the number of students who graduate each year from Nebraska high schools.
Yet that's the number of students the University of Nebraska proposes to add this decade to its campuses in Lincoln and in Omaha — about 5,000 each.
Campus leaders describe enrollment growth as crucial to their missions. At 30,000 students, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln could better compete with its new peers in the Big Ten, says Chancellor Harvey Perlman. At 20,000 students, the University of Nebraska at Omaha could be a more influential player in the metro area's economy and culture, says Chancellor John Christensen.
Skeptics say that's all well and good, but they say Nebraska's demographics don't bode well for success.
To meet their enrollment goals, it looks as if the two campuses will have to compete with each other — and with other Nebraska institutions — for students from Nebraska's main population centers. They also will need to do a masterful job of recruiting students from other states.
Too few high school graduates
It's not simply a matter of persuading more Nebraska students to attend college.
Over the next five years, almost no growth is expected in the state's number of high school graduates, according to the Nebraska Coordinating Commission on Postsecondary Education. And only three in 10 students are not already bound for college — most likely too small a pool to generate 10,000 more students.
Administrators at other Nebraska colleges and universities question whether NU is embarking on a “zero-sum” game — meeting its enrollment goals by poaching prospects from other institutions, said Marshall Hill, executive director of the coordinating commission.
“We're all looking for more enrollment, and the reality is there's not going to be enough students in Nebraska,” said Dennis Trotter, president of Hastings College.
“It doesn't save the state taxpayers any money to take students from a private college and serve them in a public school,” said Tip O'Neill, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Nebraska.
Looking out of state
UNL and UNO officials insist that they have room to grow.
“It's a stretch goal, but I'm completely confident we can reach it,” said Ellen Weissinger, senior vice chancellor of academic affairs at UNL.
UNL has launched a marketing campaign to woo more students from out of state, particularly from Big Ten country.
Weissinger said UNL's recent athletic entry into the Big Ten Conference gives it access to new students — those who want a Big Ten experience but can't get into their home-state universities.
She said many good students are turned away from other Big Ten universities as those institutions emphasize out-of-state enrollment. Even though it's three times the rate Nebraska students pay, UNL's tuition for out-of-state students also is about what many would be charged by a Big Ten university in their home states.
For now, UNL has hired more recruiters to woo students in Illinois and Minnesota, but it eventually will expand into Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, said Admissions Dean Alan Cerveny.
It is a strategy that's been successful at the University of Iowa, President Sally Mason says. At 30,000 students, Iowa is UNL's closest peer among public universities in the Big Ten.
Iowa and Nebraska are Big Ten schools that appeal to students who might be intimidated by some of the conference's larger campuses, she said.
She predicted that UNL would reach its goal. “They're going to get there,” Mason said.
Omaha vs. Lincoln
For its part, UNO is tailoring its recruitment to its mission as a metropolitan university. It's seeking more students closer to home.
“This is not about UNO; it is about the city of Omaha,” said Pelema Morrice, associate vice chancellor of enrollment management and marketing. “A great city needs a great university. If we're growing, Omaha's growing.”
The truth is that NU mostly missed out on growth in higher education from 1999 to 2010. The number of college students in the state grew by almost 30,000, but most went to community colleges and private colleges. UNO today is 10 percent smaller than it was in 1992, and UNL is about the same size as it was in those days.
UNO has lost 15 percent of its share of the Omaha market to other institutions since 2006, including UNL, Midland University in Fremont and Bellevue University.
It aims to make up lost ground, said B.J. Reed, senior vice chancellor of academic affairs. The university has hired a consultant to help develop a detailed recruitment plan.
“We clearly want our fair share — and more than our fair share — of traditional high school graduates,” he said. “And the only place they're growing ... is in the Omaha market.”
Midland University President Ben Sasse said his institution will continue to compete for Omaha students.
“Omaha students and parents desire choices,” he said. “Some prefer big state schools. But many want an intimate environment with a relentless commitment to one-on-one advising. At Midland, professors know your name, coaches and mentors engage in your life, and every student can graduate in four years.”
UNO and UNL already compete for students in Douglas County. Nearly 90 percent of UNO's undergraduates come from the metro area. For UNL, Douglas County is second only to its home county of Lancaster as a source of students — and its count of Douglas County undergraduates has grown by 12 percent over the past five years.
UNO, meanwhile, had fewer than 200 Lancaster County undergraduates in the fall of 2011, the most recent available statistics. UNO officials acknowledge that they probably will look to Lincoln soon.
Officials at UNL and UNO also are eyeing less obvious pockets of students to grow.
UNL's Weissinger, for example, says that before UNL turns to those students from other Big Ten states, she wants to ensure that every Nebraska student who wants to do so can attend UNL.
Both institutions seek more first-generation Nebraska college students and more minority students — a rare growth area in Nebraska's demographics.
And UNL and UNO both aim to reduce the number of their students who quit during their freshman year. UNO's 2011 retention rate — the percentage of students who returned for a second year — was less than 70 percent. UNL's was 84 percent. Boosting those rates by just 5 percentage points would add hundreds of students to NU's enrollment.
UNO also plans to woo more community college transfers and adults who left college without completing their degrees. There are 250,000 Nebraskans who have earned college credit but are short of a degree, Hill says.
Gov. Dave Heineman, though he acknowledged the state's demographic challenges, said he backs NU's enrollment growth strategy.
In addition to generating more revenue without raising tuition or state appropriations, the enrollment push will attract talent, jobs and economic activity, he said. And the strategy fits with the governor's goals of boosting Nebraska's college-going and high school graduation rates.
“I think the university should be focused on growing enrollment,” Heineman said.
Recruiting more Nebraska students should be the first priority, followed by students from surrounding states and international students, he said. He has aided the effort by hosting receptions for international students.
“Ultimately, the people of Nebraska should be proud of us,” Weissinger said. “The alternative, really, is to stand still and to increasingly shrink and downsize our ability to solve their problems and serve their kids.”
UNO's Christensen agreed.
“What I know for sure is that we can't be static as a campus,” he said. “We must embrace continuous change to be competitive and to achieve our vision of UNO as a premier metropolitan university.”
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