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Silver and Blue Reaching for Gold

As the University of New Orleans approaches its spring 2020 semester, Privateers are sifting through syllabi, ordering books, and eagerly setting goals for the busy months ahead. But administrators and faculty members are also feeling hopeful.

At the beginning of the 2019 fall semester, the University of New Orleans (UNO) increased its overall student enrollment for the second straight year, moving from 8,151 to 8,231 students, marking the first time in more than a decade that the university has grown in back-to-back years. Undergraduate enrollment alone increased nearly two-percent, to 6,713 students. 

“If we just look at undergrad, it’s the first time enrollment has grown three years in a row, since before (Hurricane) Katrina. And it’s not by accident,” said John Nicklow, who has served as UNO’s president since the spring of 2016.

Although college institutions across the country have witnessed a decrease in enrollment numbers, as the amount of high school graduates has declined, UNO’s enrollment is taking an upward trajectory, said Nicklow.

“There’s an incredibly competitive market right now,” he explained. “What we’ve tried to do is simply be more innovative and at the front of that market. We’re using better techniques when searching for students – not just here and regionally, but also across the country.”

Before becoming UNO’s president, Nicklow spent nine months as the university’s provost and vice president for academic affairs. He also boasts higher education experience as a faculty member in the engineering department, and as an administrator with knowledge in research, enrollment management, fundraising, and academic program innovation. But he actually began his professional career as an environmental engineering officer with the U.S. Public Health Service.

“It doesn’t matter if the problem I’m solving is an engineering problem or something else; I use the same approach,” said Nicklow, explaining how his background has helped him tackle the challenge of boosting enrollment.

First, he says, UNO staff pinpoints their pool of prospective students, based on characteristics gleaned from standardized tests and surveys, along with data retrieved through predictive analytics and artificial intelligence. They also consider the origins of tourists exploring the city.

“They experience New Orleans and leave with fond memories, and that subtly puts in their mind that (UNO) may be a great place for college,” said Nicklow.

The UNO recruitment team then establishes an aggressive yet personalized stream of communication with each individual, highlighting specific and relevant benefits of the university.

Nicklow has noticed an uptick in applications from students both in and outside of Louisiana – including areas of the Gulf Coast, such states as New York, Colorado, and California, and major metropolitan cities, like Chicago.

There has been a four-percent jump in transfer students, which Nicklow partially attributes to articulation agreements and partnerships established with community colleges.

Nicklow did note that there has been a drop in international students applying to UNO. But this decrease seems to be part of a nationwide trend.

Proving they haven’t replaced quality with quantity, UNO has continued to attract diligent students. The average high school GPA of the current freshman class is 3.3, which is among the highest the university has had in the last 15 years. 

And, UNO is in the process of developing new academic programs, including one focused on aviation.



Highlights from the fall 2019 enrollment report:

The total number of in-state students increased 1.3% (7,210) and the number of out-of-state domestic students rose 7.8% (693)

Out-of-state domestic freshmen (90) increased by 27% 

One-quarter of the 2019 freshman class is African-American, an increase of nearly 10% over last year and the largest in 8 years

80,000 alumni

UNO has graduated more than 80,000 alumni – more than half of whom live and work in the greater New Orleans metropolitan area.

Nearly 42%

of UNO’s undergraduate students are first generation college students.


“The actual title is the Professional Pilot Program, but some people look at me and ask, ‘A pilot program in what?,’” said Nicklow. “No, it’s an actual airline pilot program. The number of airline pilots that will retire in the next five to 10 years is incredible, so there’s going to be a need for them.”

The university is creating an urban construction management program, in response to conversations with local business leaders, and revamping its Hotel, Restaurant, and Tourism (HRT) Administration program, due to the rising number of tourism-related jobs within the city. 

“We’re trying to quadruple that program,” said Nicklow. “So we’re renovating some facilities and an HRT lab space to make sure that our students can be served.” 

HRT’s Lester E. Kabacoff School features a state-of-the-art dining facility with a full kitchen, and a demonstration kitchen and classroom. Plans are in place for a computer lab. The Hospitality Research Center provides data to such clients as the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation and the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. UNO now offers an online executive master’s degree in hospitality and tourism management.

Although UNO has added online courses in a “careful and strategic way,” Nicklow prefers on-campus classes, because they enhance the student experience. 

Situated near the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, the 195-acre campus is indeed teeming with activity.

“We have 140 student organizations, and every couple of weeks I learn of a new one,” said Nicklow, noting that the school is expanding its recreation and intramural sports programs, and its athletics department. 

The university’s evolution, however, has come with a few growing pains.

At the beginning of the fall semester, while UNO’s dining facility was under construction, students endured long lunch lines. But those lines have largely diminished, now that more dining options have become available.

Also, UNO’s on-campus housing is nearing capacity, so the school is exploring new residential options.

“Based on what we’re seeing for spring, and what we’re seeing for next fall already, we expect another (enrollment) increase, and so we’re going to have to get more strategic,” said Nicklow. “It’s a great problem to have.”

Administrators have drafted a plan that examines what UNO should look like in five years, and then in 10 years. It is focused on three topics: continuing the enrollment growth, building partnerships with business leaders, and developing research.

First, administrators must examine why enrollment is significant, said Nicklow.

“Education changes lives. Graduates go into careers and change their communities, and then change the region,” he said. “If we want our community to be the best it can be, with better healthcare and lower incarceration rates, the solution is more education and more degree completion.”

Over the last two years, UNO has developed a slate of certificate programs and training programs based on software engineering, data analytics, and corporate and nonprofit communications. These certificates push working professionals towards the next step of their careers, said Nicklow. 

The Carnegie Foundation classified UNO as a research university – one of fewer than 100 public universities to hold this designator.

“We have a long legacy of research and scholarly work,” said Nicklow. “Money is being invested in new knowledge that’s being shared, not just among faculty, but among graduate and undergraduate students.”

UNO hosts more undergraduate researchers this year, than ever.

“The university has so many opportunities to grow, to produce, and to be part of the community,” said Nicklow. 

Watching the school blossom is rewarding, said Nicklow, before sharing what he considers to be the best part of his job: interacting with students, local business leaders, alumni, and UNO advocates.

“I really love how close knit this community is,” said Nicklow. “There are a lot of institutions where I – where we – could be working, but there’s something different here, and we’re able to see it everyday.”



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