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Despite pandemic, UNL enrollment holds steady, grows in key areas

Leslie Reed, UNL Communications

More undergraduates from Nebraska, more students who are the first in their families to participate in higher education and more students from underrepresented races and ethnicities enrolled at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, according to fall 2020 enrollment statistics.

As of Aug. 31, overall student enrollment was 25,057 which represents a decline of 1.3%, driven largely by an 18.4% decrease in international students. However, this is significantly better than declines many higher education experts predicted would occur among major research universities due to the coronavirus pandemic. Most assumed international enrollments would drop precipitously due to visa challenges and other issues and that more domestic students would take “gap” years if opportunities for in-person instruction were not available.

Nebraska also saw increases in key areas, including:

The number of students from underrepresented minorities grew by 5.6% and the number of minority freshmen grew by 11.5 percent. The fall 2020 student body contains more than 4,000 minority students for the first time.

The number of undergraduates from Nebraska and the number of freshmen from the Cornhusker State both grew by nearly 1%.

First-generation students — those who are the first in their families to attend college — increased by 3.2% to 5,180. The number of first-generation students in the freshmen class grew by 126 students or 12.4%.

“These are all key elements that are central to our mission as the state’s flagship, land grant institution,” Chancellor Ronnie Green said. “I am pleased that home-grown Nebraska students, first-generation students and minority students see the university as a place where they can grow and thrive — even in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic.”

The growth in those areas did not fully offset the university’s losses in international students, which dropped by 471 students, or 18.4%, mostly among undergraduates. The university’s international freshman class of 94 students is 44% smaller than last year’s class of 169. And, international graduate students dropped by 7.9%, or 72 students, compared to fall 2019.

A portion of the decline in international enrollment is due to the scheduled end of a four-year partnership that brought 50 students each year from Rwanda to Nebraska. To counteract that, the university is developing new international partnerships, such as a a program to bring in students from Egypt.

Enrollment of freshmen based at the Lincoln campus remained nearly flat at 4,601 students, while incoming freshmen enrollment in Nebraska Engineering programs based at the University of Nebraska at Omaha dropped to 129, a decrease of nearly 25%. Overall enrollment for Nebraska Engineering on the UNO campus declined 9 percent, from 881 students in 2019 to 800 students in 2020.

“It has certainly been a unique enrollment cycle for UNL, as it has for institutions across the nation,” said Matthew Ellis, executive director for enrollment services. “But because the university leaned into our belief in the power of every person, we were able to still meet so many of our goals and continue to serve our diverse and talented students from across Nebraska and around the world.”