LINCOLN — Nebraska's push to get more kids into higher education is paying dividends.

Nebraska is now ranked among the top 10 states nationally in the percentage of high school students who continue their education after graduation.

Nebraska ranks No. 7 in the nation, with 69.5 percent of its high school graduates continuing their education at community colleges or universities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

That compares with a ranking of 19th, and a 64.5 percent college-going rate, four years ago.

Gov. Dave Heineman and a group of state academic leaders held a press conference Thursday at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to celebrate the improvement and encourage parents and kids to visit a college.

Such visits, they said, are a crucial first step toward eventually enrolling.

Matt Moore, a UNL student from Omaha, said his visit to the Lincoln campus convinced him it was the right fit for him.

Students he met on the visit were welcoming and friendly, Moore said.

One of the major goals of the state's P-16 Initiative, an effort to improve student success from preschool through college, was to get Nebraska among the top 10 for students seeking a higher education.

Another is to achieve a high school graduation rate of 90 percent. That rate now is 87.6 percent, or fourth-highest in the United States, according to the governor, who is co-chairman of the P-16 group.

To increase the college-going rate, Nebraska colleges, universities and foundations ratcheted up efforts to get more kids to visit their campuses.

Southeast Community College, for instance, expanded its open houses for families. Doane College offered more free summer classes for high school students — classes that allowed them to earn college credit and get comfortable with the Crete, Neb., campus.

Schools have also spiffed up their welcome mats. Thursday's press conference was held in UNL's Brunt Visitors Center, a handsome and comfy brick building constructed 10 years ago to better greet new and prospective students.

To increase awareness about scholarships and academic requirements, Nebraska's EducationQuest Foundation has provided $2.5 million worth of grants to 51 high schools since 2006. The foundation has also provided money to 77 schools to arrange college visits by eighth-graders.

J.B. Milliken, president of the University of Nebraska system, said that some parents still are not sure if college is affordable or if their children can succeed.

He said the state has done a great job of keeping tuition as low as possible. This year, state colleges and universities enacted a two-year tuition freeze, and some state colleges now offer in-state tuition rates for out-of-state students.

More scholarships are available for lower-income students who are academically ready for college, Milliken said. About 6,600 students, he said, are attending NU campuses this year tuition-free through the College Bound Nebraska program.

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