The total enrollment at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln barely budged this year, despite UNL welcoming its biggest freshman class in decades.
The increase by about 240 students didn't move UNL very far toward its aim to have 30,000 students by 2017, but Chancellor Harvey Perlman said the groundwork is being laid to meet that goal.
“I think we're right on track,” Perlman said.
It may take a bit longer for the numbers to bounce back from graduating UNL's largest classes ever the past two years, he said. But the big freshman class is a positive sign, he said.
UNL's freshman class of 4,420 students is 12 percent bigger than last year's class, the biggest jump in the NU system. Overall, UNL's growth was only 1 percent. The university would need to increase enrollment by an average of 1,388 students annually from now to 2017 to hit the 30,000 mark.
While more than two-thirds of UNL's students are from Nebraska, students from other Big Ten states — where the college is now aggressively recruiting — make up about 6.5 percent.
Success in recruiting outside Nebraska may be a necessity to boosting enrollment. The Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education projects almost no increase in the number of Nebraska high school graduates in the next few years.
Nationwide, the numbers are more positive: The National Center for Education Statistics expects total enrollment at degree-granting institutions to grow about 15 percent between 2010 and 2021.
“Its clear the demographics in Nebraska wouldn't support the growth,” Perlman said. “But we've just entered the Big Ten. We're just starting to build pipelines across Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa. That's an untapped potential at this point for us.”
UNL's growth mirrored that of the NU system, which enrolled about 7 percent more freshmen this year but had overall growth of about 1 percent.
The NU system — made up of the Lincoln, Omaha and Kearney campuses, the NU Medical Center in Omaha and the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis — grew by 525 students this year to reach a total of 50,705.
The biggest enrollment growth was at UNO, 3 percent, while UNK posted a 2 percent decline. Small gains were seen at UNL and UNMC.
NU President J.B. Milliken said in a statement that he is pleased with the overall growth but that the university must do more to attract and retain students.
“If Nebraska is to meet the workforce demands of the future, we will need to encourage many more students to pursue a college degree,” Milliken said.
At UNO, Senior Vice Chancellor B.J. Reed said this year's growth is positive, especially when UNO is still working to build the staff support, infrastructure and academic plan to accommodate more students.
UNO has a goal of having 20,000 students by 2020. Since that goal was set three years ago, UNO's enrollment has grown almost 4 percent to 15,227. UNO would need to add an average of 682 students a year to meet its timetable.
Graduate programs showed the most growth at UNO, where a 9 percent increase this year brought the number to almost 2,900. The freshman class grew 5.3 percent.
Reed is not sure if the university will meet its enrollment goal, but he thinks aiming for it can only bring positives.
“If we don't have a challenge goal, a goal that really stretched our capacity, we'll undershoot what we're capable of,” Reed said.
Enrollment at UNMC grew less than 1 percent, but the medical center's student body is its largest ever. The biggest overall drop came at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis, which has 9.4 percent fewer students, but that college is by far NU's smallest with 300 students.
Among larger campuses, the Kearney campus saw the only decrease, a 2 percent overall drop to 7,052 students. First-time freshmen and undergraduate numbers dropped by 10 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively. Graduate admissions were flat.
UNK is more vulnerable to rural demographics, said Dusty Newton, director of undergraduate recruitment and admissions at UNK. Still, Newton said, UNK has seen growth in students from Omaha and Lincoln.
“For us, being around that 7,000 students is comfortable,” Newton said. “It's who we are, and we're happy with that.”