UNL’s rising enrollment creates growing pains for students
It only takes one look at the now obstructed view of Memorial Stadium from the east to know that things at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are changing.
As many of the College of Business Administration students are excited to move into their large new building, some students are feeling nostalgic for a time when there was more green space and less crowded sidewalks.
The quest to reach 30,000 students by 2020 began in 2011 by then Chancellor Harvey Perlman. Since these efforts, the 2016-2017 school year hit a new record for the largest and most diverse freshman class. Currently, there are 25,897 undergraduate, graduate and professional students enrolled at UNL.
Current undergraduate students give mixed reviews on how their time at UNL has gone. More study spaces, nicer dorm options and more student services leave some students feeling grateful for the growth, while others feel — well — cramped.
“When I started, the campus was a lot more open, there was a lot more green space,” said Tyler Loebig, a junior advertising major. “When I think about it now, everything is a lot more congested in every aspect.”
He’s not the only student with complaints.
Especially for seniors, the last four years have been filled with tuition hikes, more expensive and harder to find parking, difficulties getting into required classes and struggles to meet with over-extended advisors.
These growing pains vary in severity depending on major.
Many student take to Twitter to express their frustration with UNL:
Chancellor Ronnie Green admits that much of the growth before 2016 was not strategically planned.
“Twenty-seventeen is the year of building a plan for UNL,” Green said. “It’s the first time we’re going through a lot of change in 16 years. We’re doing a lot of thinking about what that future looks like.”
Green became chancellor in May 2016, and, like Perlman, one of his biggest goals is growth at UNL. For Green any future growth is all about strategy. And that’s why he named four task force teams to evaluate UNL’s future strategic direction.
“Staff and students need to help envision that,” Green said. “We have to actually operationalize a plan that walks through how we get there.”
The four task forces include:
- Smart Enrollment Growth
- Student Matriculation Success
- Budget Model
- Achieving Distinction
For Green, growth isn’t two-dimensional. Some of the places he sees the biggest future opportunities are online and in graduate programs.
When it comes to how UNL is currently managing space and creating a budget that incentivizes growth, Green acknowledged that there are improvements to be made.
“I don’t think ours is necessarily optimized,” he said. “I think we can improve that significantly.”
One area on campus where growth seems impossible without expanding is for students in the Hixon Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts.
“Our number one priority is space,” said Charles O’Connor, dean of the college. “All fine arts areas are being affected.”
O’Connor maintains that the space is enough to accommodate current students, although students often say that lack of space limits their ability to create and practice. O’Connor admitted that the music program will have to halt any future growth until more practice rooms and rehearsal spaces are made available.
As the number of students attending UNL has rose since 2011, tuition has also steadily increased each year since then. Other than the increasing cost of attendance, providing the same level of financial assistance and scheduling classes are all concerns with a growing population.
Although tuition has increased by 24 percent since 2011, the amount of financial aid for students between 2010 to 2015 has fluctuated. In 2011-2012, financial aid rose significantly, a 24 percent increase from the previous year, then dropped 11 percent in the following year.
Justin Chase Brown, director of scholarships and financial aid, said he wasn’t certain what accounted for the financial aid fluctuations because UNL has made no policy changes about how aid is awarded. He speculated that the increase in 2011-2012 may have been a result of the 2008 recession, which would have affected many families’ level of financial need.
Despite the rise in need and merit based aid awarded for the 2014-2015 school year, the overall increase in financial aid since 2010 has only been 1.5 percent, while enrollment has grown 5.6 percent.
But even with the growing pains of increasing tuition and lower financial aid, increasing enrollment is something that will have benefits across the board, said Amy Goodburn, associate vice chancellor for Academic Affairs.
“As our population, has increased it has also become more diverse and more global and that is a benefit to all of our students,” she said. “Our diversifying population gives you many more opportunities to learn from others, who are not like yourself. It’s preparing you to be a better citizen in the world.”
Current students or those graduating this year already are receiving benefits, Goodburn said.
“We have a huge global network of alumni that they can get connected with. They have rich opportunities for experiences here: study abroad, undergraduate research, leadership and involvement.”
Goodburn agreed with Green that UNL needs to be strategic and forward thinking when pursuing enrollment increases. Forward-thinking options could include starting classes earlier, offering more online and night classes and hiring more staff.
Growth is an important part of staying competitive in the Big 10, where UNL is currently the smallest school, Goodburn said. Increasing enrollment also leads to more flexibility in hiring staff and gaining prestige in the Big 10, which can lead to more research and study abroad opportunities overall, she noted.
“It’s true that it’s inconvenient for seniors right now in CBA because they’re not going to experience the beautiful building, but CBA rose seven numbers in the rankings this year. That’s important for them even as they graduate.”