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Time to capitalize on the University’s momentum
President Milliken: Time to capitalize on the University's momentum By James B. Milliken
President, University of Nebraska

Nations and regions are recognizing that to compete successfully in the 21st-century global economy, they must increase educational attainment levels. This is true in China, India and Brazil, as well as in the U.S. and Nebraska. A recent report from Georgetown University found that to make up for lost ground, the U.S. needs to add 20 million more workers with postsecondary credentials to our economy by 2025. Nebraska was 7th among all states in the need for education beyond high school.

The president, the nation’s governors, and our own state P-16 Initiative have made college-going and graduation a high priority. We must produce many more college graduates – particularly in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields – if we are to meet workforce demands and remain competitive in the global innovation economy.

This is a difficult time for our nation’s colleges and universities to meet the challenge. At least 20 states have made major cuts in higher education this year, continuing a steady and unsettling trend. At the same time, all institutions are facing increasing demands for accountability. Rising tuition costs are squeezing families, and student graduation rates are failing to satisfy parents and policymakers. Media headlines, policymakers and families are even asking: Is college worth it?

I am convinced the answer is a resounding yes, but universities must demonstrate their value. I think we’re doing that in Nebraska. Fortunately, we enjoy some advantages today that put us in a strong position to advance the University of Nebraska in ways that serve the state well. This is due in large part to a relatively healthy economy, prudent fiscal management, and a Governor and Legislature that have recognized education as a priority in Nebraska. Stable state funding to the University allows us to maintain the impressive momentum we are experiencing: steady enrollment growth, record research funding, extraordinary private support, major initiatives that build on our strengths, new partnerships around the globe and more. We must capitalize on our advantages to create an even stronger University. The future of Nebraska is clearly and inextricably tied to the future of its only public university.

This decade will culminate with the University of Nebraska’s 150th anniversary in 2019. Between now and then:
  • We must grow enrollment significantly, especially at UNL and UNO. Growth will enhance both campuses’ ability to fulfill their missions and serve the state. One of the best ways to ensure that Nebraska is competitive is by developing human capital, both by educating a higher percentage of our own residents and attracting talented people from other states and other countries.
  • We must maintain a sharp focus on a limited number of priorities. Of course, a large public university like ours offers a wide variety of programs. But if we want the four-campus University of Nebraska to be among the best, we need to prioritize. We’re doing this in several areas already, such as the sustainable use of water for agriculture, where we’re increasingly recognized as a global leader through the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute. Early childhood education and development is another field in which we’re internationally recognized, and we’ll significantly advance our position through the Buffett Early Childhood Institute. Both the Daugherty and Buffett institutes are excellent examples of how a land-grant university can leverage the expertise of its faculty, the talents and wisdom of people across the state, and the generosity of visionary donors to address challenges facing the state and the world.
  • We must become a global university. International engagement is not a luxury for a few students or an interesting sidelight for a university. It is central to every leading university’s mission. Our economy is increasingly global: diseases move across the planet in a day; violence is exported without regard to borders; and knowledge knows no boundaries. Understanding the world—its markets, political systems, cultures, and challenges—is as important as understanding our own country. In addition, providing ample international learning and research opportunities is essential if we hope to attract the best students and faculty.
  • We must address the public concern that college costs too much and that it takes students too long to graduate. Affordable access remains the University’s highest priority, and we’ll continue to invest in financial aid and explore new ways to enable students to come to our campuses. But one of the best ways we can provide savings to students and their families – and reduce the strain on financial aid – is by accelerating the time to graduation. A fifth year of college adds about 20 percent to the cost of the bachelor’s degree. We can mitigate this cost by implementing a 120-credit-hour path to a degree, so that students can be expected to complete their education in four years.
I believe that when we celebrate our 150th birthday, we will be a markedly better institution than we are today, doing more to positively impact the lives of Nebraskans and contribute to the economic competitiveness of our state and nation. But to do this, we must waste no time taking advantage of the opportunities we have.

This editorial originally appeared in the Omaha World-Herald on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011.

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