Northern Kentucky University Is Making a Name for Itself

The major players in higher education locally have long been the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University, but NKU is proving itself a force to be reckoned with.
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When I decided to return to college a few years ago to complete my bachelor’s degree, I applied to only two schools: the University of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky University. They’re both local and relatively inexpensive—in-state tuition is $11,660 a year for UC and $10,296 for NKU—especially when compared with the other two major university players in the region, Xavier and Miami. There’s also a good chance of getting into either: UC’s acceptance rate is 73 percent and NKU’s is 89 percent.

Illustration by James Yamasaki

Hovering under my decision to ultimately attend UC, though, was the fact that I didn’t know much about NKU, or Northern Kentucky, at all. Raised in the silo of the northern Cincinnati suburbs, I looked askance at the school—and state—across the river. Had I given either a fair shot, who knows what might have happened.

As it stands today, NKU is a strong contender in the local higher education game. It offers undergraduate degrees in fields ranging from journalism to neuroscience, a few masters’ opportunities (including executive leadership and organizational change), and the Salmon P. Chase College of Law.

“Northern Kentucky University is very much an institution that has built its reputation as being regionally engaged,” says Ashish Vaidya, NKU’s president. “Our history and legacy have defined NKU as an institution that is a steward of place.”

Roughly 80 percent of NKU grads stay in the region, which is, Vaidya says, a rate that’s significantly higher than that of other universities. “We are very much the anchor institution to provide the graduates, the workforce, the talent needs for the diverse industries of this region.”

If any school could be deemed NKU’s flagship, it may well be the College of Informatics. NKU is one of the few universities in the region to offer an undergraduate degree in data science. Next year, the school rolls out a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity. These programs have come about in large part because NKU listens to its constituents, who want these kinds of educational opportunities that ladder up directly to the modern workforce. Part of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), Vaidya prefers to compare NKU within that network rather than its sister schools across the river.

“For so often, AASCU institutions were always explaining themselves by who we were not…. We kept spinning our wheels, rather than explaining clearly who [we] are,” he says.

NKU isn’t a public research institution, like UC, or a selective liberal arts school, like Xavier. It is, simply, an institution with solid degree programs and a desire to grow opportunities for students. If there’s a correlation to be found with Northern Kentucky as a region, it’s this: NKU knows who it is. The rest of us are just now finding out.

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