Sprinkled throughout Nebraska’s wide-open spaces reside potential college students, and they are in demand.

As state money for higher education becomes tighter, college enrollments and the tuition they bring become more critical. That means aggressively recruiting kids at schools surrounded by the Great Plains. Every student counts.

“We’re in a very competitive marketplace,” said Cindy Cammack, admissions director at Peru State College. “Everyone wants to grow, and it has to happen some way. But it’s challenging.”

Some, including the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, seek to pick up their rural game with coffee shop visits, recruiters based in towns and college readiness programs provided by Nebraska Extension offices across the state.

Connecting with a recruiter or with students already enrolled, or getting the right vibe from a campus tour, are keys to hooking a high schooler. Seeing a spot on campus that feels right — such as the rodeo arena for a young cowboy or the multicultural affairs center for a minority student — also can make a difference.

UNL has advantages. Many Nebraska high school students have parents, aunts, brothers and sisters who went there. And everyone knows about the magnetic draw of Big Red football. But UNL also has a disadvantage. It’s a big place packed with 26,000 students, and that can be intimidating for anyone, especially people used to looking out the window and seeing the Plains all the way to the horizon.

Sky Morgan, a UNL senior from Winnebago, said an uncle went to the flagship campus in Lincoln. “Yeah, be a Husker,” he advised. She also recalled a tour of UNL when she was in high school. It felt right.

“Everyone was friendly,” the business administration and management major said, “and they gave off a good vibe, a good feeling about the university.”

Tom Harnisch, of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said rural kids have a role in campus diversity because so many city kids have no idea what it’s like to live on a farm or in a small town. Therefore, students from rural Nebraska bring different perspectives to campus.

“I think there’s more attention being paid to rural students and the needs of rural communities,” Harnisch said.

Two students interviewed chose the small, more country feel of Chadron State College. UNL might get them eventually anyway, because both are in an initiative — the Rural Law Opportunities Program — in which excellent students with an interest in the law at Chadron State, Wayne State and the University of Nebraska at Kearney gain provisional acceptance into the NU College of Law.

Cole Retchless, a Chadron State junior from Bridgeport, Nebraska, wanted to join a great rodeo program and expected to go to Oklahoma Panhandle State or Wyoming.

But his mother, a Chadron State graduate, insisted he take a tour of her alma mater. When he visited the college’s rodeo arena, team members walked right over without prompting and shook his hand. The rodeo coach, Dustin Luper, made no hard sell.

“It’s kind of a hometown, hometowny feel,” Retchless said of Chadron. As the tour ended, his father said he believed Cole would meet some of the best people he would ever encounter at Chadron State.

“I thought, ‘Holy cow, he’s right,’ ” Retchless said. Now a Chadron State junior, his desire to become a lawyer has risen, while his passion for rodeo has dropped a notch. He said he’s still in the right place.

Samantha Carrillo, a sophomore from Alliance, Nebraska, also wants to be a lawyer. She and Retchless are in the Rural Law Opportunities Program.

Carrillo thought about UNL, but she preferred the more intimate setting at Chadron State. “I wanted something a little closer to home and something smaller,” she said.

Sign up for The World-Herald's afternoon updates

Receive a summary of the day’s popular and trending stories from Omaha.com.

Recognition of the importance of rural recruitment comes as the number of rural children declines. David Drozd of the University of Nebraska at Omaha Center for Public Affairs Research estimated that in the 81 Nebraska counties defined as “non-metro,” the number of children younger than 18 will drop from 164,738 in 2010 to 143,414 in 2030, or 12.9%.

In all, Drozd said, the number of kids under 18 in Nebraska will grow a paltry 5.8% from 2010 to 2030.

The Latino population of under-18s, though, will rise from about 69,184 in all of the state’s 93 counties to 107,469 by 2030, an increase of 55.3%.

This has compelled colleges to be more conscious of the importance of recruiting Latino students. Dusty Newton, director of admissions at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, said about 10 percent of the UNK student body is Latino, up from 2 percent 20 years ago.

Newton’s institution has created Spanish-speaking campus tours and developed monthly recruiting visits aimed at Latino families.

More than 85 percent of UNK students are Nebraskans, and most of those come to UNK from towns and farms that are within 100 miles of the campus, Newton said.

Abby Freeman, UNL’s director of admissions, said her recruiters hit 80 percent of the state’s high schools and reach the rest at college fairs.

Freeman said UNL recently created part-time recruiter positions in Albion, York and Grand Island. She said UNL also has a fairly new partnership with Nebraska Extension, called Next Chapter, that exposes middle- and high-schoolers to UNL programs.

Amber Williams, UNL’s assistant vice chancellor for academic services and enrollment management, said her recruiters have begun meeting some students and families in town coffee shops and diners, where the atmosphere is more personal.

“We find that the families kind of like it,” Williams said of the coffee shop stop. “And it allows for a much more informal conversation.”

UNL recruiter Abel Covarrubias, assistant director of diversity and inclusion, remembers when he toured the university about nine years ago as a high school student from Grand Island. On that tour, Covarrubias went through the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center, where many minority students bond and receive support.

20190421_new_ruralphoto03

Abel Covarrubias, the assistant director of the office of admissions for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, talks with sophomores and juniors at the Stapleton Public Schools in Stapleton, Nebraska.

Covarrubias, who is Latino, liked the feel of the center and could see himself succeeding at UNL. It helped that he grew up watching Husker football games on television. “I still wish I had that student discount,” he said. He was the first of his family to graduate from college.

It also helps if a prospective student can break a big campus into communities, biting the institution’s possibilities into smaller parts. Deb Fiddelke, chief communication and marketing officer at UNL, was the first of four sisters from Kearney to go to UNL.

“The great thing about the university is there is a way to find your community here,” Fiddelke said. “And that’s going to be your support network.” Her UNL communities included student government, other advertising students in the journalism program and a sorority.

Ed Schaaf, guidance counselor at Broken Bow High School, said he sees many of his students choose UNL, while some go for UNK and some other colleges. “Going to a Big Ten school, I think, is a big deal to kids,” Schaaf said.

During a phone interview, Schaaf summoned senior Griffin Wright, who Schaaf expected to go to Lincoln. But Wright has decided to attend Concordia University in Seward. UNL and Wayne State pursued him, but Concordia gave him a chance to play intercollegiate golf, he said, and that was the clincher.

Concordia will start an agricultural science major in the fall. The college hired a longtime UNL agriculture faculty member, Dennis Brink, to help build the program. Brink said it would enable Concordia to recruit more rural kids. Doane University also has developed an agribusiness program that will start on campus in the fall.

UNL is a three-plus-hour drive from Broken Bow, but Gracie Williams, a freshman, said her campus tour sold her on UNL. She loved the new and upgraded facilities she saw.

“I was dead set on going to UNL at the end of my junior year” of high school, Williams said. “It’s just a nice place to be.”

Williams has joined a sorority and an a cappella singing group and is part of the Thompson Scholars Learning Community at Harper Residence Hall. “You can find a community,” she said, “and make UNL as small as you want it to be.”