Wayne State College student Ethan Scholting of Gretna works in the manufacturing lab in the college's new Center for Applied Technology.

New programs, old reliables and innovative approaches boosted enrollment at several colleges in the region this semester.

However, the majority of colleges and universities surveyed showed at least slight declines in enrollment. Some, such as Creighton University, pointed to record enrollments last year and said a small drop-off posed no reason for alarm.

The fact that so many of the colleges reported decreases in enrollment reflects the increase in competition for available students. In Nebraska, the numbers of high school graduates are fairly flat, and in the Midwest as a whole those numbers are down.

Wayne State College President Marysz Rames said it “takes your entire campus” to produce a successful enrollment effort. Wayne State enrollment jumped 9.9% last year and 5.5% this year.

Rames said her college has worked closely with industry representatives in the region to respond to workforce needs.

Wayne State opened a new Center for Applied Technology early this year. It has also begun offering a program in engineering technology and has increased courses in manufacturing management.

Merritt Nelson, vice president for enrollment management at Fremont-based Midland University, said many regional colleges and universities are fishing in the same pond for prospective students, and that pond is shrinking.

Midland showed an enrollment increase of less than 1%. “We’re not satisfied,” Nelson said.

He said Midland wants to “be a player in the future of higher education.” To do that, he said, a college must identify what workers the Nebraska and American marketplace needs and what gaps a college can fill best.

“We’re going to find out what works for us,” he said.

What works for one school might not work for another. Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, had alumni “almost begging us” to start a master’s program in education, said Northwestern President Greg Christy. That way, teachers in northwest Iowa and across the state could upgrade their skills and get a boost in salary from many school districts.

Christy said Northwestern College has a strong undergraduate program in education and was confident that it could create a good graduate program. The college “thought we had a niche,” Christy said, and created an online master’s degree in education four years ago. It has taken off.

Northwestern’s Duane Beeson said 352 students participated in the program this year, up from 275 last fall. So that program alone made up a good chunk of Northwestern’s 105-student gain in enrollment.

In Nebraska, York College also has done well with online master’s degree programs in education and in organizational and global leadership.

York President Steven Eckman said those programs enrolled 87 students this year, up from 42 last year. That means they provided a large part of the school’s 77-student enrollment growth.

Enrollment at colleges and universities in Nebraska and Iowa

School 2019 2018 Percent change
Bellevue 11,788 9,387 +25.6%
Bryan College of Health (Lincoln) 775 716 +8.2%
Clarkson (Omaha) 1,125 1,178 -4.5%
College of St. Mary (Omaha) 1,050 1,100 -4.5%
Concordia (Seward) 1,674 1,825 -8.3%
Doane (Crete) 2,735 2,751 -.06%
Hastings 996 1,000 -0.4%
Midland (Fremont) 1,408 1,395 +0.9%
Nebraska Christian (Papillion) 108 135 -20%
Nebraska Methodist (Omaha) 1,127 1,102 +2.3%
Nebraska Wesleyan (Lincoln) 2,044 2,095 -2.4%
Summit Christian (Gering) 28 24 +16.7%
Union (Lincoln) 813 832 -2.3%
York 506 429 +17.9%
Creighton (Omaha) 8,821 8,910 -1%
UNK 6,279 6,327 -0.8%
UNL 25,332 25,820 -1.9%
UNMC (Omaha) 4,055 3,972 +2.1%
UNO 15,153 15,431 -1.8%
Chadron State 2,387 2,461 -3.0%
Peru State 1,800 1,807 -0.4%
Wayne State 3,689 3,498 +5.5%
University of Iowa (Iowa City) 31,240 31,656 -1.3%
Iowa State (Ames) 33,391 34,992 -4.6%
Northern Iowa (Cedar Falls) 10,497 11,212 -6.4%
Drake (Des Moines) 4,884 4,869 +0.3%
Dordt (Sioux Center, Iowa) 1,547 1,569 -1.4%
Northwestern College (Orange City, Iowa) 1,412 1.307 +8%

The region’s biggest public universities had declines in enrollment. That includes Iowa State, Iowa, Northern Iowa, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

For evidence that the pool of available young students is flat or shrinking, consider that the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education in Colorado has estimated that the Midwest produced about 776,800 high school graduates in 2010 and only 735,300 this year.

The UNO Center for Public Affairs Research estimated that Nebraska produced about 20,380 white 18-year-olds in 2010 and only about 18,255 this year. This was not quite balanced by an increase of about 1,955 in 18-year-old minority-group members in Nebraska from 2010 to 2019.

Bellevue University experienced a big bump in enrollment. President Mary Hawkins said that is partly because of Bellevue’s partnerships with companies across the nation, such as Walmart, Disney and First National Bank of Omaha.

Bellevue also has 41 community colleges in the nation that it partners with, placing a staffer on most of those campuses. Hawkins said Bellevue also doesn’t do a lot of second-guessing about the transferability of most community college programs.

Dr. Dele Davies, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at the NU Medical Center in Omaha, said another demographic trend has increased the need for health care workers. That is a growing population of elderly Nebraskans and older Americans.

The medical center set its 19th consecutive enrollment record this semester. Some other colleges that focus on producing health care workers, such as Nebraska Methodist College in Omaha and the Bryan College of Health Sciences, also enjoyed jumps in enrollment.

Health care professions have been hot for years. There’s a shortage across the nation in many health professions, Davies said. “I really think what you’re seeing is just a response to a need.”

Midland’s Nelson said higher education hasn’t done a good job of changing to meet evolving times and trends. But with a smaller pool of young adults available to recruit from, Nelson said, that will have to change.

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