It is easy to describe the state of Wyoming’s university. Simply put, it’s a great time to be a Cowboy.

We are advancing three priorities.

First is providing an excellent education. That’s our highest mission. It’s what the people of Wyoming count on us to provide. Last year, we awarded nearly 3,000 degrees – the most in our history. In The Wall Street Journal’s college rankings, UW stands 65th among the 341 public universities, our highest ranking ever.

Second is being affordable. Among our peers, we have the lowest tuition. We’re not just affordable; our graduates get a great return on their investment. Compared with every public university in America, UW alumni are in the top 20% for income. The Wall Street Journal rankings placed UW fifth among all 801 American universities in its “Is Your College Worth the Cost?” measure, which are based on student perceptions of the value of their education. Only one land-grant university was ranked ahead of us – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Third is being accessible. Physically, we know not everyone in Wyoming can come to Laramie, but we can go to them, through distance learning and partnerships with community colleges. We want to welcome more students and see them through to graduation swiftly. It matters for our students and their families, and it matters for Wyoming’s future.

We are doing well, but we all know the road ahead will include some challenges.

Two decades ago, UW had little to offer the state in terms of energy research. Today, we are a world leader across these fields, and we continue to provide effective solutions for the difficulties that our state’s energy producers face. If our state needs pragmatic and effective solutions to the severe challenges that our energy industries face, UW will be there to provide them.

Our scientists are working through UW Extension to address emerging issues. If our state needs resources that farmers and ranchers can lean on to solve problems around animal production, management of invasive species or sustainable range management, UW will be there to provide them.

Providing an excellent education to our students is the heart and soul of our mission. A UW diploma gives our graduates the knowledge, values and habits of mind to contribute – and thrive – in the world they inherit. If our state needs more bright college graduates, with the tools to embrace a changing world, UW will be there to provide them.

The fates of the state of Wyoming and the University of Wyoming are closely intertwined. In this time of change, I propose that we strengthen this partnership between the state and its university – through concrete actions – to accelerate our progress.

A great university is made of many components. It always starts, though, with great faculty and staff. How can we retain and hire even more of the best and most-promising faculty?

Working with the UW Foundation, we have identified opportunities to raise $10 million in private funds to recruit and retain first-rate faculty. We are asking the Legislature to provide another $10 million in matching funds. Our goal is to double the number of endowed chairs so we can hire top faculty members who can help our students and build Wyoming’s future.

A serious challenge facing our student body is remaining on track to graduate in four years, which is the time limit set by our state’s Hathaway Scholarship Program. Yet, barely one-quarter of our students complete in four years.

When a student needs a ninth semester to finish a bachelor’s degree, it often means they incur more debt – or they stop-out from school to earn the money needed to complete a degree. Neither of these outcomes is what we seek for our students. Student debt limits our alumni’s ability to start new businesses, to purchase a home or achieve other important goals, and, too often, “life happens” when students stop-out before earning their degree.

Today, Wyoming has about 350,000 people over the age of 25. More than 100,000 of them have some college credits but no college degree. That is why we are making a dramatic increase in financial aid. Our goal is to double the number of UW students graduating on time.

It truly is a great time to be a Cowboy. But I believe the best times are just ahead. We’ve turned a corner, but we’re not slowing down – we’re doubling down.

Neil Theobald is the acting president of the University of Wyoming. This article is drawn from his recent State of the University address.

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