HAZARD — The University of Kentucky's freshman class has exceeded 5,000 students for the second year in a row, and UK officials say it is the most diverse and academically prepared class in UK's history.
The freshman class brings UK's total enrollment to 30,704, the second year in a row that it has exceeded 30,000 students.
For the 5,217 students who entered this fall, the average ACT score was 25.5 and the average GPA was 3.68. There are 117 National Merit Scholars.
The freshman class has 560 black students — more than 10 percent of incoming freshman — and 265 Hispanic students.
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Another record has been set with out-of-state students, who make up 38 percent of the freshman class, the highest in UK history.
"This fall's first-year class, and our overall enrollment, testifies to the progress we've made in achieving our goal to be a first choice university for the best students, faculty and staff," UK President Eli Capilouto said.
Enrollment numbers were presented Friday at the UK Board of Trustees meeting in Hazard.
Provost Tim Tracy said that even though UK has seen improvement in its annual retention and graduation rates, much work remains to be done.
This year, the rate of freshmen who returned for their sophomore year was 82.7 percent, the highest ever. The six-year graduation rate — used for national comparisons — is 61 percent, but the four-year rate is less than 40 percent.
"We want to improve that four-year graduation rate, making sure we have clear pathways for students so they have the greatest possibility to finish in four years," he said. "That will be a natural outcome of improved retention."
Despite having its highest-ever retention rate for freshmen, the percentage of first-generation students — those who are the first in their families to go to college — who returned for their second year of school fell slightly, from 74.5 percent to 74 percent.
"We need to do better," Tracy said, noting that UK has established an office called First Generation Initiatives. "Increasing recruitment, retention and graduation rates for all underrepresented populations, including first-generation students, is something we emphasize in our strategic plan, which we will present to the board in October."
Tracy said he thinks part of the improvement in enrollment and retention is attributable to UK's $1.8 billion push to build new dorms, dining halls and academic buildings.
"Anecdotal evidence suggests (new construction) is improving the student experience, and that includes having places to live," he said. "Students who live on campus have higher retention and higher success rates, so it all comes together."
Improved retention and graduation rates also help the university's financial bottom line because it means more students are paying tuition.
Higher tuition payments are part of UK's push to accept more out-of-state students, because their tuition rate is double that of Kentucky residents. More money from out-of-state students has helped UK offset the more than $50 million in state funding that it has lost since 2008, when the national economy tanked.
"No Kentuckian who meets our academic requirements is turned away," Tracy said.
He also emphasized the diversity that out-of-state students bring to UK.
Because the board was meeting in Hazard for the first time, UK officials touted the number of students from the 5th Congressional District, which represents 30 counties in Eastern and Southeast Kentucky. There are 333 of those students in the freshman class, up from 264 in 2010.
In October, the board of trustees will hold its annual retreat to discuss its next five-year strategic plan, which will focus on student success.
In other business, the board:
■ Voted to return former board chairman Britt Brockman of Louisville to the top spot. Chairman Keith Gannon pulled his name from contention for personal reasons, officials said. C.B. Akins, pastor of Bracktown Baptist Church in Lexington, will be vice chairman.
■ Voted to accept a $1.3 million gift from Kentucky Eagle Inc. in the form of real estate: a recording studio and space that will become the headquarters of WUKY, UK's radio station, and space for the UK Opera Theatre program.
■ Voted to approve $37 million in spending on new construction by UK HealthCare, most of which is to be used to finish new intensive care space at the Kentucky Children's Hospital.