The writer is president of the University of Nebraska.
Higher education is more important today than at any other time in our history. The connections between educational attainment, personal earning power and the economic competitiveness of a state or region are well documented and widely acknowledged.
Consider, for example, that college-educated workers are leading the economic recovery, with more than half of the jobs created in the recovery going to individuals with a bachelor’s degree or better. Furthermore, studies show that in the next few years, two-thirds of all jobs in Nebraska will require education beyond high school — seventh-highest in the country.
For these and many other reasons, increasing educational attainment is a high priority nationally and in Nebraska. The University of Nebraska’s growth goals — to increase enrollment by 10,000 students so we can strengthen the state’s knowledge economy — are aligned with this priority.
The biennial budget recommended by the Appropriations Committee would put the university and state in a strong position to achieve these goals. I know policy-makers must weigh many important priorities, and I am grateful to Chairman Heath Mello and members of the committee for recommending a sensible, strategic budget that would address critical needs of the university after five years of essentially flat funding for operations.
The committee’s budget would allow us to invest in priorities and freeze tuition for Nebraskans for the next two years. The tuition freeze would save a typical undergraduate $1,000 over two years — savings that could mean less debt or fewer hours working and more time studying. This would be a very positive step welcomed by thousands of Nebraska students and their families.
In addition, the support for a new College of Nursing facility in Lincoln recommended by the committee would help us address the growing need for highly trained nurses in Nebraska. This project has been the university’s highest capital priority for years, and we are grateful for this continuing commitment to our Building a Healthier Nebraska initiative.
We do not take the state’s investment in its only public university lightly, and in fact we are the first to say there are areas where we can improve. We have put in place a set of specific, measurable goals related to key areas like enrollment, affordability and student success, and we report on our progress regularly and publicly.
And while we always want to be better, we believe we have a great story to tell.
Tuition at each of our campuses is well below the averages of our peer institutions, and we have increased financial aid for those who need it most. As a result, the average debt load of graduates on two of our campuses is the lowest in the peer group.
Graduation rates at UNO and UNK exceed their peer averages, and UNL is closing the gap. Each of our campuses is implementing strategies for continued improvement, such as new learning communities that allow students to live and study together, and “early warning” systems through which struggling students can be identified and aided quickly.
We are using our resources effectively, reducing costs and leveraging non-state sources to support our activities. Staffing levels across the university are below peer averages, including at the administrative level, and state appropriations per student have declined since 2000. In that same period, enrollment has grown from 45,000 to 50,000 and research expenditures have more than doubled, to nearly $300 million.
And research conducted at the University of Nebraska is improving the quality of life in our state and around the world. Our efforts in water, agriculture, business, early childhood, public health, cancer, national security and other fields create new knowledge, jobs and economic vitality for the state. In our state, this scale of research activity is unique to the University of Nebraska, and we intend to continue to strengthen our position in areas that are important to Nebraskans.
In partnership with the state, we are doing great things: Innovation Campus, a new cancer research center, a health sciences facility at UNK and a new veterinary diagnostic laboratory. We appreciate the state’s investment in these initiatives, and we thank the Appropriations Committee for recommending a budget that would renew the state’s support for general university operations.
Approval of this budget by the full Legislature would help us make the opportunities that come with a college education a reality for many more Nebraskans.