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In Year of Change, NKU Welcomes Most Academically Qualified Class Ever

15,000 students return to Northern Kentucky University this week with classes starting on Monday, the first day of what can be described as a year of change.

The university said in a news release that this year's incoming freshmen make up the most academically qualified class ever. Applications to the Highland Heights campus are up significantly. The school is now part of a new athletics conference in the highest level of intercollegiate sports as the Norse teams now compete in the Horizon League. 

"A decade ago, when we implemented admissions standards for the first time, the median ACT score of the incoming class was 20.7. This fall, it will be 24, up considerably from last year’s median of 23.1," said President Geoffrey Mearns during last week's convocation. The president also noted the 3,000 miles he and others from the university traveled across the state to meet with 3,000 high school students, "introducing them to our university in a whole new way."

Other changes are visible on campus.

Returning students, faculty and staff will return to a newly-renovated and expanded Campus Recreation Center. The $48 million project doubled the size of the 169,314 square-foot facility and added state-of-the-art equipment and offerings for students, faculty, staff, and the community.

The University will also break ground this fall on a new facility, a $97 million health innovation center. The project will create a cutting-edge home for the College of Health Professions and bring programs from across campus together to study the future of health care in new ways. It includes construction of a new facility and the renovation of Founders Hall, the second-oldest academic building on campus.

"This extraordinary demand for new talent comes at a time when, each year, we are turning away more than 300 qualified applicants to our nursing and allied-health programs primarily due to a lack of space. Our health innovation center will allow us to grow our current programs and add new ones that will help meet the needs of our region, the Commonwealth, and the nation," Mearns said.

The University has added several new academic programs this year. A new School of the Arts will also bring the NKU’s nationally-renowned theatre, dance, music and visual arts programs together under one roof to enhance the student experience and engage the community in new ways.

Next summer, the Governor's Scholar Program returns to campus for the first time since 2003. The six-week residential program brings some of the brightest high school students from across Kentucky to campus before they enter their senior year. "It is an honor to be selected as a host institution once again for this important program," Mearns said. "It is a testament to the work all of you are doing. It is also a wonderful opportunity to show many of the best and brightest in the Commonwealth what our university and this region have to offer."

NKU will also continue to strengthen its partnership with Gateway Community & Technical College. "Together, we have designed more than 40 degree pathways that begin with enrollment at Gateway and culminate with a bachelor's degree from our university," Mearns said. "These pathway programs allow us to tailor academic advising and support to our students' educational and career goals."

The university is also developing programs to enhance undergraduate and graduate enrollment. 

At Chase Law School this fall two innovative programs will launch. The 3+3 program will allow high-performing undergraduate students to earn a bachelor's degree and law degree in six years. The opportunity will save tuition dollars for students and will allow them to begin their legal careers sooner. Chase will also enroll its first students in the new Master of Legal Studies program, designed for working professionals that work in human resources, health care, administration, and finance who may require a deeper understanding of the law.

Adult learned are seeing changes, too. The PACE program offers working adults the opportunity to earn a degree while balancing work, family, and other responsibilities. 340 students will be enrolled in the program this fall.

Mearns said that the campus continues to develop a culture that embraces diversity and pointed to five key administrators who work together specifically towards this goal. The number of African-American freshmen at NKU will increase by more than 10 percent this semester and the total of African-American students on campus has increased by 53% over ten years. The Latino student population has increased by more than 200 percent.

The president also shared a story of a gay student who found the campus to be a supportive and welcoming place. "Our commitment to inclusiveness has never been stronger," Mearns said. "But we have much more work to do to create an environment that is welcoming, safe, and supportive of all students, faculty, and staff."

The athletics programs and campus community will also benefit from the move to the Horizon League, Mearns said. When NKU began its transition to NCAA Division I in 2012, the Norse competed in the Atlantic Sun, a conference made up of schools from the southeastern United States. NKU was the northernmost campus. In the Horizon League, the schools come from the Midwest. "Our fans will be able to travel to many more away games," Mearns said. "And the shorter travel distances will reduce expenses. The Horizon League, though is a more competitive conference, so our student-athletes and our coaches will have to work even harder to continue our long tradition of athletic achievement."

The teams are excelling in the classroom, too. 14 sports teams achieved grade point averages of higher than 3.0, with the women's volleyball team leading the way at 3.668.

One additional change remains elusive, however, and Mearns said that the university must continue to push for an alternate way to fund higher education in Kentucky, a system that has historically been unfair to NKU in comparison to other state universities. 

Enough is enough, Mearns said.

"The current approach defies logic and common sense. There is no relationship between enrollment and outcomes," the president said. "If we were to decide not to enroll 2,000 new freshmen this year, we would still receive the same level of state support. And, notwithstanding our significant growth in degrees conferred, we have not received any proportional increase in state support. This approach makes no sense. That is why I have argued that we need a rational, strategic funding model that aligns the state’s investment with the outcomes that we seek. 

"Over the last year, it is apparent that our position is attracting a lot of attention. Our arguments are getting some real traction, and our cause is gaining significant support. But, there are some folks who are fighting to preserve the status quo. They defend the current system, because it benefits their respective institutions. They use the political process to preserve an antiquated funding approach – to preserve an historic relic.
"In the next six months, notwithstanding this opposition, I believe we have a window of opportunity to jettison this antiquated approach and implement a new model – one that rewards objective performance, not politics. A new model that puts students first."
The university has lobbied Republicans and Democrats in the Kentucky General Assembly which will convene for its 60-day session early next year.
"This effort will not be easy. And, as I have learned over the past two years, this effort will not always be pleasant," Mearns said. "But I know this: the change that we are seeking is in the best interests of all students and families and taxpayers in our Commonwealth. Not just our students. It is right and it is just for all of the people of Kentucky."
-Michael Monks, editor & publisher
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