NKU celebrates another bumper crop of students

Touts highest-achieving freshmen ever

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- Northern Kentucky University just keeps getting bigger and smarter.

Faculty and staff welcomed 2,250 freshmen at the university’s convocation Thursday, a nearly 10 percent increase compared to 2012.

The class has more brains to go with its brawn, boasting the best academic credentials of any class in NKU’s 45-year history. The freshmen’s average ACT score jumped to 23.3, compared to 22.7 last year and 20.7 five years ago.

“It’s a reflection of the quality of our academic programs,” President Geoffrey Mearns told assembled freshmen, faculty and staff at Thursday’s convocation. “It is also the result of a deliberate enrollment strategy that has communicated to outstanding students that NKU should be their first choice.”

The university is succeeding despite tight budgets that are especially strained by Kentucky’s strained budget, where underfunded pensions are taking priority over education dollars as the commonwealth’s economy slowly recovers.

The university’s budget will remain around $223 million and its faculty and staff about 2,100, about the same as last year’s, according to Chris Cole, NKU spokesman.

Mearns proudly rattled off other signs of progress at NKU, including a diversifying student body, as reflected in a 13 percent increase in the number of African Americans in the freshman class. The school’s Latino population has also increased, thanks in part to outreach efforts like the Second Annual Latino College Fair earlier this year.

The university has work to do on boosting graduation rates and undergraduate retention, Mearns said. According to U.S. News & World Report, NKU’s retention rate is 67 percent while it’s four-year graduation rate is 11 percent, a figure that reflects the large number of part-time and non-traditional students that take classes there.

Mearns, who succeeded James Votruba in 2012, convened a committee last January to create a new strategic plan to build on the university’s successes. After 10 campus forums, the completion of surveys by 3,000 students, faculty and staff and seven working groups focusing on various aspects of the university’s mission, NKU is poised to release a draft of the plan on Sept. 1.

“We will emphasize the importance of lifelong learning,” Mearns said by way of previewing some of the plan. “We must give (students) the skills, the value and the character to have fulfilling caeers and meaningful lives in an increasingly dynamic and competitive world.”

Students want to be challenged, planners learned. “They want us to demand excellence. We have, and we will. We mus also demand excellence from ourselves in everything that we do,” Mearns said.

To accommodate the growing student population as well as to entice future students, NKU continues to expand its campus, including a new residence hall for 200 students that will open in fall 2014.

Though NKU has continued to expand its residential student population, it remains a big draw for non-traditional students. About 47 percent of its graduates last year were 25 or older, Mearns said. “That fact distinguishes our institution.  It’s also a fact that makes us proud,” he said.

The university is also embracing the trend of online courses, having experienced a 30 percent boom in online class enrollment in 2012 and an expectation of double-digit increases this year.

Mearns ended his convocation speech praising the vision of the leaders who built NKU from scratch 45 years ago and presided over its rapid expansion. “I believe we have an obligation to honor their efforts and their memories with a sustained commitment to achieve our individual and collective aspirations,” he said. “For now, it is our time.”

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