Here’s how University of Nebraska system plans to fix its $58M shortfall

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Dive Brief:

  • The University of Nebraska system president unveiled a blueprint Thursday intended to correct its projected $58 million budget shortfall by the end of the 2024-25 fiscal year. 
  • President Ted Carter said the system will reinvigorate its recruitment strategy in an attempt to reverse recent enrollment declines, as well as raise its academic profile with the goal of rejoining the Association of American Universities, or AAU, a selective organization composed of high-profile research institutions. 
  • In addition to the long-term plan, the system will pursue more immediate austerity measures. It will freeze hiring for nonfaculty positions and temporarily reduce all department operating and supply budgets by 2.5% quarterly, beginning July 1. 

Dive Insight:

The system has not been immune to economic trends that have driven down college enrollment nationwide, including recent turbulence from the COVID-19 pandemic. It enrolled 49,560 students in fall 2022, a decline of just over 2% from the previous year. 

Of the system institutions, only the University of Nebraska Medical Center saw slight growth. And the University of Nebraska-Lincoln experienced more than a 2% decline. That decrease is troubling, as flagships often enjoy greater prominence than regional publics and thus don’t face the same enrollment troubles. 

At the time, Carter called the numbers disappointing and said enrollment was top priority. 

In his latest announcement, Carter said the system will attempt a “blanket the state” recruitment strategy. It will start a program incentivizing current college students to visit high schools to speak with prospective applicants, as well as an in-state recruitment initiative that will send system representatives “to major events across the state.”

At the same time, the system has raised tuition rates slightly, the first time since the 2020-21 academic year. The increase averages out to 3.5% for all students. Undergraduates at the Lincoln campus who are taking a full course load will pay $270 more next year. Tuition for in-state residents was $7,770 in the last academic year.

Carter also seems especially interested in courting AAU after the group voted in 2011 to oust Nebraska’s flagship campus from its membership. Although the university was a founding member, it had continually failed to meet AAU’s standards, particularly around the amount of research funding it took in. 

Part of the problem was that the system’s medical center operated separately from Lincoln, so its research dollars or publications in prestigious journals wouldn’t count in AAU’s metrics. Carter said the system will take steps to report Lincoln’s and the medical center’s research funding as a singular figure.

“The combined impact of a flagship university and an academic health science center can’t be matched,” Carter said in a statement. “Stronger alignment between our two institutions with a statewide reach and mission will benefit both, and will make our entire university and state more competitive.”

And while the system evaluates its academic array on a seven-year cycle, it will now “more proactively” benchmark programs to standards that the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education sets, Carter said.

It will also institute a process for budget planning that involves a new committee of administrators, faculty members and students — and it will continue to look for ways to cut and decentralize operations, the president said. 

The system’s governing board has endorsed the strategy.

“It’s an exciting vision that I’ve not heard articulated at the University of Nebraska. That’s exciting to me,” Tim Clare, chair of Lincoln’s board said. “It’s the kind of bold thinking we need if we’re going to have a strong, growing, competitive university.”


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