By Hannah Gill, Contributor
When people think of University of Nebraska Omaha students, Deborah Smith-Howell, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and dean for graduate studies, wants them to include graduate, transfer, distance learners and undergraduate students.
“It’s a community,” she said. “There are strategies and efforts around each population.”
These strategies and efforts are part of UNO’s 2020 goal for 20,000 students, up from 15,227 total students enrolled this fall semester.
“It’s a kind of a quality improvement goal,” Smith-Howell said. “Even if we don’t hit that exact number, we will have improved the university in the process.”
One of the five areas “designated as key campus priorities to spearhead” growth for the 2020 goal is doctoral/graduate research, according to the “Campus Priorities” papers from UNO. Smith-Howell lead a committee of UNO staff to write one of the sections detailing plans that would both increase enrollment and educational quality.
This initiative started in 2011 when UNO was reclassified as a Doctoral/Research University by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, based mainly on the number of doctoral degrees granted and external research funding for the campus.
External funding has led to big advancements, such as the donation from the William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation providing support for the Biomechanics Research Building. This lead to one of seven doctoral programs at UNO in bioinformatics.
“We are looking at very focused areas that we have special knowledge in,” said Smith-Howell. “The funding came to really solidify the excellence of that program.”
UNO began its doctoral programs in 1989 through a partnership with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln but now has seven specific to the Omaha campus. They include psychology, criminology and criminal justice, public administration, information technology and exercise science.
The graduate studies programs have also grown by offering additional graduate certificate programs. According to Smith-Howell, these give students “specific credentials” important in advancing in the workplace and having an educated workforce. In 2004, there were two programs. Now there are 19, along with more options through dual degrees and 49 individual masters programs.
Though total enrollment stayed level from fall 2013 to fall 2014, graduate enrollment was at its second-highest in university history, increasing 3.9 percent to 3,006 students. While the raw numbers stand out, other factors are important in determining the total number of students on campus.
For example, in 1992, the university had 7,045 students, but Smith-Howell said the lower retention rate and number of part-time students meant the total credit hours taught was less than early 21st century classes. The retention rate for first and second year students is currently at 77 percent.
To create an environment to attract and retain students, UNO has provided them with more tools for success. This includes specialists at the Writing Center.
“The graduate consultants are very, very busy,” said Jenna DeWilde, a junior in criminal justice and student worker at the Arts and Sciences Hall center. “They are booked up.”
The university has also increased internal funding for graduate and undergraduate research and conference travel support. Developing best practices is a key concern to maximize the program. However, benefits to the graduate program trickle down to benefit other major populations at UNO. Smith-Howell said graduate students “energize classrooms” and “support activities” that provide services to other students.
“Graduate assistants are out there working with students in lots of ways,” Smith-Howell said. “That makes a stronger undergraduate experience.”
The Graduate Studies Office is working on projects to continue its growth. One is better data collection and analytics to track the effectiveness of extra support and spending over its first few years of students. Another is a masters of art in creative and critical thinking that may be available entirely online as soon as fall 2015. In the meantime, graduate students make up 20 percent of UNO’s student body and a faster growing segment than undergraduates. This is part of the key goals working towards 20,000 students in 2020.
“It makes a difference,” Smith-Howell said. “I have an obligation to maintain that base and growth.”