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Students crowd a sidewalk at UNL on Monday. But there are 488 fewer students on the Lincoln campus than there were in the fall semester last year, a decline of 1.9%. Total enrollment at UNO and UNK also fell slightly, as colleges compete for a smaller pool of high school graduates in the region.

The fall enrollment figures are in for Nebraska colleges and universities, and many institutions saw slight declines. That needn’t come as a surprise. The demographic trend is clear: Graduating high school classes have been growing smaller in the Midwest and the rest of the country. Competition in college recruitment is increasingly intense.

These conditions by no means relieve colleges and universities from striving to boost their enrollments. Greater enrollment can reduce pressure for increases in tuition and fees and, for public universities, increases in taxpayer funding. But it’s important for the public to understand the enrollment challenge and not to have inflated expectations.

In 2010, Midwest high schools graduated 776,800 students. By 2030, the number is projected to fall to 669,600. The general pattern is the same for the nation as a whole, with a drop of nearly 5% expected during that 20-year period, reports the Western Interstate Commission for Education in Boulder, Colorado.

An additional complication: a general decrease in international students accepting entrance into U.S. colleges and universities.

The result is that educational institutions have “a smaller pie or smaller market share to work with,” says Omar Correa, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In such an environment, colleges and universities need to be innovative in their outreach and offerings, says Jody Horner, president of Midland University in Fremont: “Standing still is not an option in the industry today.”

Many institutions are trying out new ideas to maximize their appeal to students. Here are a few Nebraska examples: Hastings College funds a required international trip for its sophomores and has converted to the block system, in which a student takes only one or two classes in terms shorter than semesters. Doane University offers a three-year graduation guarantee in certain programs for students who meet certain requirements. Creighton University provides international trips and associated academic opportunities to students through its Global Scholars Program. Midland University offers scholarships in more than 30 sporting activities and gives each student an iPad and an Apple Pencil.

Another tool for maximizing recruitment is stronger outreach to minority students.

The enrollment challenge meant slight decreases this fall in overall numbers for University of Nebraska campuses except for the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Still, individual NU campuses can point to pluses: the most racially diverse and academically qualified freshman class, in terms of ACT scores, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. An increase in-state freshmen at UNO, plus an increase in international students. An 18% increase in full-time transfer undergraduates at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Colleges and universities face a recruitment pinch. Innovative outreach and strong academic offerings can provide the best way forward.

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