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By DOUG KRISTENSEN
KEARNEY – There is no greater return on investment to Nebraskans than to assure affordable access to students in quality University of Nebraska programs that are delivering graduates prepared to excel in the state’s workforce – in classrooms, laboratories, offices, fields, factories and studios.
This transformational investment is especially important for Nebraska’s low-income and first-generation students, who are succeeding in unimaginable ways at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Two UNK programs making a difference for dozens of Nebraska students are the Thompson Scholars and Kearney Bound Scholars.
Thompson Scholars, supported by the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, provides scholarships and a supportive learning community that helps make a university education attainable for students, many of whom face three or more risk factors to success. In 2017, the Buffett Foundation supported 438 UNK Thompson Scholars. Retention and graduation rates for these students are substantively higher than rates for our overall undergraduate student population, with nearly 8 of 10 of these students graduating within six years.
In the Kearney Bound program, 30 high school students each year are selected from North Platte, Lexington and Kearney. In collaboration with these high schools, scholars complete all requirements for full admission to UNK through special preparations and programming. Pell-eligible and mostly first-generation, these scholars earn free UNK tuition and room and board. The Kearney Bound students’ first-year retention continues to average around 90 percent, and a six-year graduation rate of about 70 percent. Most of the scholars in these programs stay in Nebraska after they graduate.
Our partnership with Nebraska’s community colleges has also improved students’ abilities to afford a degree and become successful at the University of Nebraska.
A new Pathway program announced this month as a collaboration with Central Community College is now being offered for students who initially fall short of university admissions requirements. The CCC Pathway creates a supportive program to help applicants meet UNK admission requirements by co-enrolling their first year at CCC and UNK. Pathway students benefit from UNK student services, amenities and organizations, and can live on campus while taking most of their classes at CCC.
While nationally 23 percent of community college students who dream of eventually graduating with a bachelor’s degree are successful, at UNK our community college transfer students graduate at more than double the national average and are retained at rates similar to our traditional incoming freshmen. Considering these students are generally more diverse, less financially secure and very often first-generation college students, their graduation rates far surpass expectations.
While enrollment of any and all who seek a university education is a worthy goal, without the supports and systems to retain and graduate students we are not succeeding. We must continue to invest in programs that support our students’ academic, social, health and wellness needs. These programs are expensive – but a worthwhile investment that continues to improve individual Nebraskans’ lives, and the businesses and organizations that need these graduates in their communities.
Our college deans and faculty stay connected to Nebraska industries and hear often of the demand for talent in communities across the state, especially where unemployment rates are low and industry demands are stressing local resources. A few key high-demand areas are K-12 and early childhood educators, science-technology-engineering and math fields, new fields such as cyber systems and cybersecurity, and of course health care professions.
A new program starting this fall also will work to increase access and affordability, and help fill gaps in high-need fields, in particular, teaching.
The new Teachers Scholars Academy supported by the William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation provides full-tuition and partial education expenses for future teachers, and 40 UNK students will earn this scholarship and academy. For a UNK student, the dollar value of this scholarship is worth nearly $24,000 in tuition alone. Over four years, and including the covered expenses, the scholarship package is worth roughly $56,000. This special project means hundreds of future teachers will graduate from the University of Nebraska debt-free, highly prepared, and ready to make a difference in schools across Nebraska and the country.
With the important collaborations from education partners and donors, and our strong relationships with businesses and organizations across Nebraska, UNK is hearing, and responding to, the workforce needs of Nebraska communities. One important way of doing that is by investing in access and success programs that help make college attainable to Nebraska students and their families
Douglas Kristensen is Chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Kearney