As the number of college-aged Nebraskans has dwindled in recent years, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has seen in-state enrollment climb. In this swim upstream, though, students from outside the state — and country, in many cases — have powered a far larger share of the university’s growth. Between 2013 and 2017, those increases are 4 percent and 23 percent, respectively, as the Journal Star’s Chris Dunker documented last Sunday.

With the demographic and workforce challenges facing Nebraska in the coming years, the need to attract students from outside the Cornhusker State will only rise in importance. The investment being made by UNL on that front, even as its overall enrollment has dipped slightly, will pay dividends both now and long into the future.

Despite the boom in nonresident enrollment, UNL hasn’t forgotten its roots as a land-grant university.

A University of California, Los Angeles survey found that UNL representatives physically visited a far higher percentage of institutions in the state than peer institutions studied: 88 percent of high schools and all community colleges within the state in 2017.

That dedication to Nebraska must never waver.

But projections don’t indicate the number of high school diplomas awarded to grow substantially in the coming years. In its 2018 report, Nebraska’s Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education estimates increases that average less than 1 percent per year between 2016-17 and 2026-27.

Future Huskers will have to come from somewhere. And with population declining in many rural counties, that somewhere often lies beyond Nebraska’s borders.

Growth in out-of-state and international students, in particular — who face a higher per-credit-hour price for tuition before factoring for scholarships — helps keep tuition rates low for in-state students. That helps to preserve access and affordability to higher education for Nebraskans that compares favorably to UNL’s compatriots in the Big Ten Conference.

Given ambitious growth plans at UNL — particularly in high-demand fields, such as engineering, which is undergoing $160 million in expansions — and the looming workforce shortage facing the state, Nebraska’s future will hinge upon the graduates of its colleges and universities.

If these students matriculate at UNL or another Nebraska institution, they’re more likely to stay in the Good Life after graduation. Business and elected leaders alike know we need more young talent in this state, hence the variety of plans and programs being unveiled to curb brain drain and attract workers.

Nebraska must play the long game as it seeks to avoid being overwhelmed by a wave of retirements — particularly its rural areas — in the next decade-plus. Getting students, regardless of their hometown, to attend college in the state is a sound start in that regard.

Lincoln Journal Star

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