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Green touts improving graduation rates at UNL, seeks to reverse enrollment losses

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State of UNL

University of Nebraska Chancellor Ronnie Green delivers the 2022 State of the University address on Wednesday at the Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln.

A big red "N" has emblazoned the diplomas of 23,337 University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduates over the past four years, Chancellor Ronnie Green announced at his annual State of the University address on Wednesday.

UNL has seen a record-breaking number of students walk across the stage to receive their degree in three of the past four years, Green told university faculty, students and staff at the Lied Center for Performing Arts.

Degree completion remains UNL's top priority, Green said, as the university seeks to meet the state's future workforce needs, and Huskers are graduating at an increasingly quicker rate.

"We've seen our four-year grad rate go up every year for seven straight entering classes," Green said. "It increased 10 percentage points in that time."

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In fact, for the cohort of students that entered UNL in 2008, fewer than one-third (31%) graduated in four years, while just over half (50.3%) of students who started at UNL in 2018 earned their degree in the same span of time, according to data tracked by the university.

Nearly two-thirds of UNL students (63.7%) graduate in five years.

The increase in UNL's four-year graduation rate hasn't happened by accident, according to Amy Goodburn, senior associate vice chancellor and the dean of undergraduate education.

Over the past decade, UNL has clearly outlined the path students need to take to graduate in four years in each of the majors it offers, Goodburn said.

UNL also has put greater emphasis on its students enrolling in 15 credit hours each semester, if possible, rather than the minimum 12 credit hours. Taking 30 credit hours per year puts students on track to graduate in four years.

The success of UNL's "Winterim" classes — the short sessions offered between the end of the fall semester in December and the beginning of the spring semester in January — has also allowed students to pick up additional credit hours.

Just over half of students (50.5%) took 30 credit hours in the 2018-19 school year, before the Winterim classes were implemented, while the number jumped 7% for the 2021-22 school year (57.5%).

"That's the way we're slowly ticking up our four-year graduation rate," Goodburn said in a phone interview earlier this year. "We're lasering in on how many courses they are taking and how they are earning those credits year over year."

Green, in his review of UNL's accomplishments in the 2021-22 school year, said the state's public flagship university remains an example of the value of a college degree, particularly in Nebraska.

Four out of five Nebraska students who attend and graduate from UNL go on to start their careers in the Cornhusker state, he said, while three-quarters of out-of-state students stay in the state for their first jobs.

While celebrating the graduation rate, the chancellor said UNL will have to work hard to replace those students as it continues striving to be an economic driver for the state.

This year, through a combination of students leaving after graduating, ongoing disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, and declining numbers of international students, UNL saw its third straight year of enrollment declines.

The 23,805 students UNL reported during its fall census marks the smallest student body since 2008. Green said it was imperative for UNL to reverse course and get back to 25,000 students, which he referred to as a "baseline" for the future.

"We must be relentless in our work to recruit bright young minds to UNL, from across Nebraska, the U.S. and the world," Green said. "In that respect, enrollment and recruitment is a priority in all of our jobs in the current time frame and years ahead."

Green also sought to temper expectations. While his predecessor, Chancellor Harvey Perlman, announced a goal of growing UNL's enrollment to 30,000, and Green had previously suggested UNL could grow to 35,000 students, he said the current reality is different.

"The recalibration is just a function of what the market is," Green said. "There are fewer available students for the overall higher ed market in the years ahead, and with the capacity higher ed has, it's a supply and demand issue."

Other highlights from Green's speech:

* There has been $1 billion in construction work to renovate, replace or expand facilities at UNL since 2019, he said.

* UNL reported a record $321 million in total research expenditures last year, and was 64th out of the top 100 institutions in the world in how many patents were granted from research done here.

* Private donors have given $755 million in support of the university over the last five years, with Green promising "exciting announcements ahead" for fundraising in 2023.

* Green said Husker Athletics remains "incredibly well-situated as a full, solid member of the Big Ten Conference," as the organization prepares to expand coast-to-coast in 2024, and endure more changes to collegiate athletics.

The chancellor also addressed the recent shake-up in the Athletic Department:

"While continued transition in leadership is challenging, and may I say frustrating, it is even more so when we all desired so deeply for former coach Scott Frost and his coaching team to experience success. I appreciate Scott's dedication and commitment to his alma mater under the incredible pressure of the role, and wish Scott and all of the Frost family only the very best in the future."

* When Purdue University President Mitch Daniels retires at the end of the year, Green will become the longest-serving member of the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors.

"I must say that this somewhat stark reality is giving me great pause and stimulating considerable personal reflection about the persistence of leadership in today's higher education landscape," Green said during his speech.

The reflection hasn't led Green to make any choices about his future, he said when asked about those comments after his speech. Presidents and chancellors typically lead universities for five years; Green has been at the helm of UNL for more than six years.

"I'm thinking about what the right time is for being in a role like this," he said. "It's just natural to think about it."

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

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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Higher education/statehouse reporter

A native of Beatrice, Chris Dunker has reported on higher education, state government and other issues since joining the Journal Star in 2014.

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