The University of New Orleans reported Monday that student enrollment rose this semester for the first time in nine years, as university leaders work to rebound from tepid enrollment numbers that fell to a five-decade low a year ago.

UNO’s enrollment rose to 8,151 students for the fall semester, up 2.4 percent from the 7,964 students enrolled at the same point last fall, the school said.

The number of undergraduates at the Lakefront school increased by 1.8 percent, while graduate enrollment rose by 4.8 percent.

Meanwhile, as LSU relaxes a generation-old policy of automatically rejecting applicants who score too low on standardized entrance exams like the ACT, UNO President John Nicklow said he generally backs that approach but has not approached the Board of Regents about implementing it at UNO.

The positive enrollment news marked the culmination of an aggressive campaign to bolster UNO’s enrollment that Nicklow has helped lead since serving as UNO’s provost. He has also worked 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, a position he held for nearly a year before being chosen in 2016 to head the university, Nicklow used a direct-mail recruiting initiative to target a half-million students who had recently taken the ACT exam in order to get UNO on the radar of prospective applicants across the country.

UNO has continued using direct mail as well as digital advertising and messaging to connect with prospective applicants. Nicklow described reaching 2.4 million “touchpoints,” or interactions, in the recent admissions cycle.

“I’m really proud of the team because they really turned over the culture of how to recruit a student,” he said.

UNO has also worked to target specific segments or demographics — such as out-of-state students, or black or Hispanic students — and to keep them focused and on-track after they begin their studies.

A closer look at the fall 2018 numbers shows signs for optimism about those efforts, Nicklow said. The number of freshman applications rose 24 percent, and out-of-state enrollment jumped by 8 percent.

Additionally, the first-year retention rate — the percentage of freshmen who return in the fall of their sophomore year — climbed 8.8 percent, to 71.2 percent.

“It certainly is an indicator of how we’re perceived and, in a lot of cases, how well our practices serve students, so it tells me we’re improving,” Nicklow said.

To help reverse the declining enrollment trend, UNO has taken on more than a dozen initiatives to help recruit and retain students and keep them on track to graduation.

Under Nicklow's watch, UNO has revamped its academic advising, begun offering 24-hour tutoring and is employing predictive analytic techniques to find potential signs of academic trouble so it can take action to keep the students in school.

“It’s a far more hands-on, student-focused support model that absolutely is working,” he said.

Nicklow has previously said he believes UNO should be able to take a more "holistic view" that considers factors such as high school attendance, grade-point average and the reputation of the school where an applicant graduated, in order to determine an applicant's likely success at UNO.

But asked whether the New Orleans university should also adopt LSU’s new approach, Nicklow was diplomatic, saying that UNO has “added flexibility” to allow it to serve the community by way of a bridge program with Delgado Community College. The program automatically admits low-scoring UNO applicants to Delgado, from which — if they complete their initial coursework in good standing — they'll then be admitted to UNO.

With few exceptions, LSU previously rejected any applicant who scored below 22 on the ACT, regardless of any other academic achievements. The test’s national average is 21.

Under stricter admissions policies that went into effect in 2012, applicants to UNO are required to have a composite ACT score of 23, or a high school core GPA of 2.5, to be admitted.

Still, Nicklow said he would be open to adopting a more holistic approach in the future if circumstances warrant it. For now, he said, he doesn't expect that UNO will lose out on prospective students because of LSU's looser admissions criteria. 

According to UNO, the fall’s freshman class has the highest average ACT score (23) of the past four years and the highest high school GPA (3.3) in a decade.

Last year’s enrollment of 7,964 marked UNO’s lowest figure since 1967. The school had 17,142 students registered before Hurricane Katrina devastated the region in 2005.

In 2016, Nicklow set a target of growing UNO's enrollment to 12,000 students in five years. 

UNO has grappled with enrollment declines since 2009. The school’s state subsidy has also dropped significantly in that span, from about $74 million in 2008-09 to less than $26 million now.

UNO’s current budget is nearly $98 million.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.