UNL

Students pass between classes Sept. 6 on UNL's main campus. Enrollment at UNL topped 26,000 this year for the first time.

ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln topped 26,000 students this fall for the first time in school history, notching record enrollment for the third straight year.

The university said Wednesday that 26,079 undergraduate and graduate students are enrolled this year, a 0.7 percent increase over last year’s enrollment figure of 25,897 taken on the sixth day of classes.

Chancellor Ronnie Green attributed the sustained growth — UNL has grown by 11 percent over the last decade — to superior programs, exceptional faculty and an ability to prepare students for successful careers.

“I have often said that our university is the DNA of the state and an increasingly essential gateway to a more successful, more prosperous Nebraska,” Green said. “When there is positive enrollment news for the university, it is also positive news for our state.”

The increase at UNL came despite several challenges that came up during the last year’s recruiting process, said Amber Williams, assistant vice chancellor for academic services and enrollment management.

A budget shortfall required NU to cut $30 million across the system, and NU’s Board of Regents in June approved two years of tuition increases — 5.4 percent and 3.2 percent, respectively.

Also, fallout from the 2016 presidential campaign seen as hostile toward immigrants and a proposed travel ban by the Trump administration against seven predominantly Muslim countries created uncertainty at U.S. universities that enroll foreign students — including UNL.

While the 3,356 international students enrolled at UNL this year is an increase over last year’s 3,232 international students, the number of first-time international enrollees dropped by 43 students.

“We weren’t immune to some of the national and global trends, but I do feel like we were able to minimize the impact as much as we could,” Williams said.

And, finally, a change to the filing process for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, allowed families to complete the application sooner, giving students more time to shop around.

“Students nowadays are applying to seven or more schools,” Williams said. “It wasn’t like that when I started in higher education 17 years ago, so we have to compete at a higher level than we have in the past.”

According to the enrollment figures released Wednesday, UNL seemingly succeeded.

Once again, UNL’s growth is driven by the largest freshman class in school history. This year’s 4,905 first-year students surpass last year’s class of 4,860.

Other highlights from the 2017 enrollment report:

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* The number of Nebraska students attending UNL, both in undergraduate and graduate courses, is 17,597. Williams said UNL plans to “double down” on its efforts to recruit students from within the state going into next year.

* UNL is also boasting its most-diverse population in school history. Minorities make up more than 15 percent of the undergraduate population — a total of 3,173 students.

Across its four campuses and the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, NU grew by 0.3 percent this year to 52,516 students — also a record — even as the total undergraduate student population dipped slightly.

NU President Hank Bounds said while he is pleased to be serving the most students in the university’s history, he hopes to find ways to accelerate growth in the future.

“You always have to be happy when it’s the largest enrollment in your history, but I would be more comfortable if we were growing at a 2 percent or 2.5 percent clip,” he said. “We will look at every strategy and see where our opportunities are to grow.”

The University of Nebraska Medical Center set an enrollment record for the 17th year in a row, topping 3,908 students despite a 1.8 percent drop in its undergraduate enrollment from last year.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha also grew this year, to 15,731 students, driven by its largest-ever freshman class. The newest Mavericks are the most-diverse in school history: one-third are minorities, while 44 percent are the first in their families to go to college.

Enrollment dropped by 2.1 percent at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and by 7.3 percent at the ag college in Curtis.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Chris Dunker covers higher education.

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