If the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reaches its enrollment goal of 30,000 students, Chancellor Harvey Perlman said the campus will have to undergo some changes.
Perlman first announced his administration’s enrollment goal in his 2011 State of the University address, back when he was hoping to reach 30,000 by 2017. In November 2013, he said the goal would be pushed back to 2020.
“It will take a little longer to get the infrastructure to accommodate 30,000 students,” Perlman said. “We still have some things to do. This gives us a little more time to do that.”
In fall 2013, total enrollment was 24,445, but the number has fluctuated over the years. The highest enrollment was 25,075 students in 1982. Reaching 30,000 would mean a 22.7 percent increase in the student body.
There are many reasons UNL would benefit from a larger student body, said Juan Franco, vice chancellor for Student Affairs. Principle among them is remaining competitive in the Big Ten Conference.
UNL joined the Big Ten in 2011 and is the second-smallest campus in terms of enrollment, ahead of Northwestern University, the conference’s only private institution. Northwestern has a student body of 21,753. Ohio State University is the largest Big Ten institution and one of the largest in the country, with 57,466 students in fall 2013.
Even with 30,000 students, UNL would remain the second-smallest Big Ten institution. The closest school in enrollment is the University of Iowa, with 31,065 students.
Staying competitive within the Big Ten is beneficial to UNL in part because of reputation, Franco said, and in part because more students means the conference can find more cost-effective ways to share resources.
“The Big Ten is known as the best academic conference in the country, outside of the Ivy League,” Juan Franco said. “We want to contribute to that reputation. We want to be able to do our part. In terms of sharing resources, if we can get together and buy things in volume for all the Big Ten schools, we can get better deals. If we can make software purchases and have a contract that serves all Big Ten schools, the cost per institution will be lower.”
Having a larger student body also means more tuition money for the university, Franco said, and more money means the school can do more for its students. He gave the recent appearance by rapper Big Sean at the University Program Council spring concert as an example.
“Smaller schools might not be able to have events for students of that magnitude,” he said.
Focusing on increased enrollment gives administrators the opportunity to target certain areas they believe the university is lagging behind. Perlman said he expects continued growth in the engineering and business colleges and that out-of-state and international students are an ongoing priority.
“We want our students exposed to the global society, to students who are outside of Nebraska, who may look different, who may bring different cultures with them, because that’s the world that our students are going to be working in,” Franco said.
The university’s recruitment plan for domestic students, Perlman said, focuses on big cities in the Big Ten “footprint,” in particular cities such as Chicago and Milwaukee.
To prepare for the possibility of 30,000 students, UNL’s campus is changing.
On-campus housing is changing.
University Suites opened last fall, and Eastside Suites, which is expected to house 500 students, will open in August. But Cather and Pound halls will both close in 2014. Both can hold 456 residents each when filled.
Administration is also considering an expansion of housing on East Campus. A new residence hall will likely open in 2017 and replace Burr and Fedde halls.
Franco said planning ahead allows UNL to make the most of a drastic increase in size.
“There are not any downsides unless you don’t prepare for it,” Franco said. “If we don’t care to have the facilities that’ll accommodate that many students, it could be detrimental. We’re taking every step we can.”
One potential problem with accommodation is UNL City Campus’ status as a “food desert,” which is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as any area in which at least 500 residents are more than a mile from a grocery store or supermarket. An additional 5,000 students may exacerbate that problem if it isn’t addressed. But David Cary, Lincoln’s long-range planning manager, said a larger student body would simply increase the demand for a grocery store on or near campus.
“It’s kind of like a chicken and an egg: A grocery store isn’t going to want a site downtown before they know there’s a certain amount of residential activity happening,” he said.
Sometime this year, Cary said, Lancaster County is expected to reach a population of 300,000, and by 2040 the county will have grown by an additional 100,000 people. The majority of that growth, around 90 percent, will come from Lincoln.
Perlman said that while there is no plan on his part to try to bring a grocery store to campus or its surrounding areas, there is one planned for a location nearby.
And in addition to more on-campus housing, it will be necessary to see more off-campus housing, a process that is well underway, Cary said.
“There’s not an aggressive plan to try to meet the demands of all those additional housing units on campus,” he said. “Those units are going to have to be out in the community somewhere. A lot of these different student housing apartment complexes are starting to happen.”
Other infrastructure changes include renovations to the City Campus Recreation Center, the construction of an Outdoor Adventures Center and a new East Campus Recreation Center and the recently completed renovations to the Nebraska Union. In the future, Franco said, the university hopes to expand the union to accommodate a larger student body. The administration has also looked at moving the University Health Center to a larger building or refurbishing it to make more efficient use of its space.
The Office of Research and Economic Development has its own goals for growth, said Vicki Miller, research communications director.
In 2011, UNL was dropped from the Association of American Universities, a group of the country’s top research universities. It was the first time in 111 years that the association ended the membership of an institution. UNL had been a member for 102 years.
Despite this, Miller said by 2018, UNL hopes to spend $300 million annually on research, with at least half coming from federal agencies. The university is inching closer to that goal: In 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, total research expenditures equaled $253 million, with $104.5 million coming from the federal government.
“Expanding our research is less about competitiveness with other universities and more about providing opportunities for students and serving our state and nation,” Miller said. “University research also helps create new technologies and solutions that address societal needs and create new businesses and economic opportunity.”
The Committee on Institutional Cooperation, which includes the 12 current Big Ten institutions, future members University of Maryland and Rutgers University and former member school the University of Chicago, has created opportunities for UNL faculty to partner with other Big Ten universities on research initiatives, Miller said. In 2011, total research expenditures from CIC member schools surpassed $9 billion.