NO.eclipse.08.010.JPG

Visitors watch the solar eclipse in front of the Earl K Long Library at the University of New Orleans Campus in New Orleans, Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. UNO invited the pubic and students to participate in solar eclipse activities, listen to presentations and watch the eclipse on the quad with a variety of harmless methods including solar eclipse glasses and pinhole cameras.

Advocate Staff photo by SOPHIA GERMER

The University of New Orleans reported Tuesday that enrollment this fall is down slightly, by less than 1 percent, but the school's president said increases in the number of new freshmen and graduate students provided reason for optimism.

UNO's enrollment for the fall totals 7,976 students, compared with 8,037 at the same point last fall, according to the latest figures.

However, it had a nearly 1 percent increase this fall in undergraduate students — 6,484 this year, compared with 6,442 in 2016 — marking its largest percentage increase since 2009.

Despite the lower total figure — the eighth consecutive year of total enrollment declines and the lowest figure since 1967 — UNO President John Nicklow said the latest figures show the school is making "strong progress in reversing a far too long history of declines."

The school had 17,142 students registered before Hurricane Katrina devastated the region in 2005.

“We are seeing significant increases in key areas and programs that are necessary for the university to create and sustain long-term enrollment growth, without sacrificing quality,” Nicklow said in a statement.

Retention of the members of last year's freshman class stayed flat at about 64 percent, he said.

In an interview, Nicklow focused on the positives, saying that he was "tremendously excited" that undergraduate enrollment had seen its largest year-over-year percentage increase in eight years.

Turning around the school's declining enrollment "essentially requires a multi-year solution, and the first thing you have to do is stop the rapid decline and then slowly turn it back the other way," he said, comparing it to "turning a ship without fracturing a ship."

Nicklow credited several recruitment strategies that UNO has tried under his watch to bolster its enrollment, including efforts to "rebrand" the school to attract potential applicants who live outside the region by tapping into the national appeal of living in a city like New Orleans.

As provost before he became president, Nicklow used a direct-mail recruiting initiative to target a half-million students who had recently taken the ACT exam, a move that, he said, helped put UNO on the radar of prospective applicants across the country.

In recent years, tighter state-mandated admissions standards helped undercut UNO's attempts to increase its enrollment, weeding out hundreds of students from metro New Orleans. 

Also during that time, UNO's state subsidy has dropped from $74 million in 2008-09 to roughly $26.5 million this year. It now accounts for about a quarter of the school's overall budget.

Nicklow was hired as UNO's provost in mid-2015, holding the post for less than a year before being named to the school's top job. A Pittsburgh native, he previously served as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Southern Illinois University for four years.

Though describing it as an aspiration, Nicklow last year set a goal of boosting UNO's enrollment to 12,000 students in five years.

Now, one year into that effort, he said he was pleased with the early returns, only a few years after enrollment was "headed down a rapid decline."

"We got to the low and now we're flat, and we're ready to turn back the other way," he added. "The good news is, once it turns, it can turn pretty quickly, so we need to keep what we're doing in place and even accelerate it."

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.