The writer is president of the University of Nebraska.
A recent World-Herald story raised questions about how the University of Nebraska will achieve its ambitious goals for enrollment growth. While we acknowledge the challenge is significant, I remain fully committed to the vision of a larger university.
The governor and other leaders have made it clear that Nebraska must educate more of our young people, expand opportunity so people across the state can enjoy the benefits of higher education and attract and develop more talent from around the world to ensure our competitiveness in the 21st-century knowledge economy.
The University of Nebraska, the state’s only public university, will play a key role. There can be no question that universities contribute enormously to their communities and states. It is hard to imagine that Nebraska wouldn’t benefit from more students and faculty advancing their studies, conducting cutting-edge research and performing outreach to serve the state.
This is why I urged our two largest campuses to develop strategies for growth. The University of Nebraska has also joined 500 other public institutions in a new national initiative to increase college completion by 3.8 million students by 2025.
How will we get there?
Our highest priority is to significantly raise the level of educational attainment among Nebraskans by increasing our college-going rate, expanding access to higher education and ensuring that students can graduate in a timely manner. Second, we plan to attract more nonresidents to Nebraska so that we grow the talent pool and economic competitiveness in our state. Third, we will expand our online enrollment, making high-quality programs available to more Nebraskans and others who cannot attend one of our campuses in person.
The university’s first mission is to provide high-quality, affordable education to Nebraskans. Today we’re doing that for thousands of students, and Nebraska’s state and community colleges and private universities are educating many others. Together we can promote the opportunity for every qualified Nebraska student to pursue higher education, whether at one of the university’s four campuses or elsewhere.
But too many of our young people — particularly those from groups underrepresented in higher education, including low-income and first-generation students — aren’t doing that. In just a few years, two-thirds of jobs in Nebraska will require education beyond high school. If Nebraska is to remain competitive in the knowledge economy, we need to ensure that more students graduate from high school and that all those who are qualified and want to go to college can do so.
For many of these students, the University of Nebraska is the right choice. We have a responsibility to reach out to them and make sure they are aware of what our campuses offer and the financial aid opportunities available, including Collegebound Nebraska, which provides free tuition to qualifying students.
We also have taken on a responsibility to expand access to the 290,000 Nebraskans who have completed some college but have not earned a degree so they can take advantage of the opportunity to complete their studies — through NU’s Online Worldwide or another avenue — and create a better future for themselves and their families.
And while our first priority will be increasing college-going among Nebraskans, there is only upside to also attracting more talented nonresidents to our state. Students get the chance to interact with a diverse campus community, and Nebraska benefits when our talent pool grows and we have more graduates contributing to a thriving economy.
We compete in an international market for talent, and the states able to attract the most talent will win in job creation, innovation and economic competitiveness. Nebraska is better off if more people attend college here and then stay to create jobs and wealth, raise families and contribute to economic growth.
The University of Nebraska should help lead Nebraska’s efforts — which is why the Legislature has urged us to increase not only the number of Nebraskans who attend college but also the number of nonresidents who come to our state to pursue education.
Nebraska’s future is tied directly to the future of its only public university. A larger University of Nebraska will be a stronger University of Nebraska — one that is doing even more to serve the people of the state through teaching, research and engagement.