Despite gaining a few dozen new students and transfers, the University of New Orleans' fall enrollment slid for the seventh consecutive year, largely hobbled by the Lakefront school's low but improving retention rate, according to figures released Monday.
UNO's fall enrollment of 8,037 students is about 4.6 percent less than a year ago. The undergraduate enrollment of 6,442 is down by about 2.4 percent, while the graduate enrollment of 1,595 dropped about 12.5 percent.
In an interview Monday, UNO President John Nicklow said he saw some signs for optimism in the latest numbers, and he cautioned that his long-term strategy for finding and keeping more students will take a few years to bear fruit.
"It's simply not realistic to turn this problem around in one year," he said.
Nicklow singled out a few bright spots: The number of new transfers rose by 7 percent, and UNO's retention rate — the percentage of students retained from the fall of their freshman year to the fall of their sophomore year — improved 2 percent, to 64.1 percent.
"The first step in the enrollment turnaround is making sure that you change the rate of decline, and we made good progress at that," he said. "The two key indicators that have to change are the number of students coming in and the number being retained, and we've positively impacted them this year."
Nicklow, who served as UNO's provost for nearly a year before being tapped to lead the school in the spring, has made increasing UNO's enrollment a priority. UNO's student head count last year sank to its lowest level since 1967 — less than half of what it was before Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The school has grappled with enrollment declines since 2009.
UNO's state subsidy also has dropped significantly in that span, from $74 million in 2008-09 to about $28 million in 2016-17.
Nicklow has set a target for UNO to have 12,000 students in five years, a goal he's described as "lofty."
To help get there, he is trying several strategies, including a broader push to comb through student data to spot potential signs of academic trouble in order to take early action to keep students enrolled in school.
He's also worked to rebrand UNO to draw in potential applicants who live elsewhere — particularly in colder climates — and to draw from New Orleans' popularity as a tourism destination.
In addition, Nicklow has targeted smaller segments or specific demographics of potential students — such as first-year, out-of-state, black or Hispanic students — with an eye toward growing those numbers.
In that area, UNO saw an uptick this fall in enrollment of black freshmen from 170 to 207. The number of enrolling first-time Hispanic students fell by one.
"We've set in motion some of the things that need to happen, and I'm really optimistic overall about what tracks we're laying," Nicklow said.
Asked if he was discouraged by the latest figures, he urged patience, saying it would take perhaps three or four years to right the ship.