Work needed to stem headwinds in higher ed

Higher education in Nebraska in 2023 is in a bind and, because of its importance to the future, so is the state.

In the last decade, Nebraska has lost 45,000 residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher, many recent graduates from the University of Nebraska system, to other states. Meanwhile, the Lincoln campus, the state’s largest, has seen enrollment decline by more than 2% each of the last two years.

That enrollment drop has created a roughly $13 million shortfall that UNL must make up as all of the state’s public higher education institutions are facing headwinds that don’t bode well for their future.

Some of those headwinds are purely economic, wage growth driven by low unemployment and high worker demand and inflation in the cost of goods and services has caused overall spending to increase, with “this environment of higher prices” likely to continue for some time to come.

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At the same time, nationally, the number of high school graduates is projected to decline over the next decade. The state Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education expects the number of traditional college-age students in Nebraska to remain relatively stable.

But competition for students from out-of-state colleges and universities adds to a projection of “muted” revenue growth from tuition. Meanwhile, there’s the issue of ongoing “brain drain” from both rural Nebraska and the state as a whole.

While Nebraska’s population grew by 7% over the last decade, 69 of the state’s 93 counties lost population, a demographic change created by an aging population and the “brain drain” that has, over at least the last three decades, seen young people leave rural areas after high school and never return, opting for higher-paying employment in fields generally unavailable outside urban areas.

That shift is reflected by the areas in the state which have seen the largest population growth – the metro sectors of Lincoln, Omaha and Sarpy County.

The “brain drain” is also, to some measure, cultural and political. Sociological studies have shown that college educated young people are abandoning rural America and moving to urban areas and, as is the case with some Midwestern university graduates, out of state to cities that are more “blue” than their increasingly “red” states.

Critically, for Nebraska’s future, those elements – losing graduates to other states, economic pressure on higher education and negligible enrollment growth – must be immediately addressed and every effort made to keep as many graduates in the state as possible.

By 2030, it’s estimated that 65% of jobs in Nebraska will require some college education, nearly double the 33% of jobs that required the same level of education in 2020.

That projection, by itself, is reason enough for higher education leadership, state officials, including the Legislature and governor, and the private sector to work together to find ways to stem the “brain drain,” perhaps through economic incentives to keep graduates in the state.

Even more challenging, the state and its employers need to find ways to recruit college-educated workers to Nebraska, looking beyond the proposed tax cuts that would largely be secondary, if not entirely inconsequential elements in decisions to locate in the state.

The university system in particular has to increase its efforts in the increasingly competitive environment to bring in students from outside Nebraska, perhaps by making a strong effort to return international students while retaining as many of the state’s high school graduates as possible.

Put simply, the state’s future depends on stemming the “brain drain,” attracting college graduates and, in the long term, adequately funding the university system.

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