As I often do, I spent time this week on the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus, touring the facilities with my fellow regents, hearing from a panel of outstanding students and taking in a volleyball match.
The excitement at UNK is everywhere, and it’s not just because the Loper volleyball team is ranked No. 4 in the country.
It’s because UNK is a growing force for change in the lives of young people and Nebraskans. Together with all the campuses of the University of Nebraska, UNK is helping to grow Nebraska for the future, educating the next generation of leaders and attracting talent that will keep our economy strong. UNK’s effect in Kearney and rural Nebraska is particularly profound.
As a regent, I’m often asked, “How does the university benefit me, a regular Nebraskan?”
I see the answers every day, which is why I decided to start writing this column, so Nebraskans can stay up-to-date with the work of our university.
I see the answer in the fact that upwards of 45 percent of UNK students are the first in their families to attend college. The transformative impact of a degree, not just on the student’s life but the lives of family and community members is difficult to quantify.
I see it in the fact that rural Nebraska faces critical workforce shortages in health care and other areas. Sixteen Nebraska counties do not have an active physician assistant. North-central Nebraska has virtually no occupational therapists, speech language pathologists or medical nutrition therapists. When it comes to STEM, we hear from businesses that demand far exceeds the number of graduates we’re producing with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.
What are we doing about it? UNK and the University of Nebraska Medical Center teamed up, and, with support from the state, city and donors, built a health science complex that is training rural Nebraska’s future health care professionals. And this spring UNK broke ground on a STEM education building, made possible by a facilities partnership with the state, that will attract the best and brightest talent to Kearney.
I see it in the numbers — a $230 million annual economic impact for UNK alone, and $3.9 billion for the entire NU system. That’s a six-to-one return on every state dollar.
I see it in the faces of the graduates at commencement, ready to begin their careers, continue their schooling, start a business or something else. Opportunities are before them because of the affordable, excellent higher education in Nebraska.
NU educates 52,000 students each year. One I met this week is Odwuar Quiñonez, a first-generation student from Lexington studying elementary education. Odwuar has been involved in his fraternity, made the dean’s list every semester, worked in the Office of Multicultural Affairs and was homecoming king.
He is a Thompson Scholar, meaning he is part of a community of students who receive financial aid and other support through a program that has had a dramatic impact on our retention and graduation rates.
Without programs like that, college may not be within reach for some students. But the right investments pay off — and are one reason Quiñonez will go on to educate future generations.
I am proud to tell you that our university is strong, thanks to partnerships with the state, agriculture and business, and alumni and friends based on a shared commitment to our young people and a vision for the future.
Our trajectory hasn’t been a perfect upward climb. Budget challenges have forced us to make some difficult decisions. As a regent, I’ve been impressed with the administration’s diligence in finding new ways of doing business, but I also recognize we can’t “efficiency” our way out of cuts.
Rather, I believe we need to grow our way forward. I’m excited to do that — for the benefit of our state and so we can make the dream of college a reality for more students like Quiñonez.