By the 1980’s, KSC's name no longer matched what it was doing. More master's degree programs were being offered and the scope of academic programs had expanded. These additions, plus a much higher enrollment, differentiated KSC from its other state college counterparts. While some sort of change needed to happen, it wasn’t immediately obvious what should be done. Various schemes, from simply trading College for University in the name to forming a new university system with the other state colleges, were debated. Then-President William Nester was a key force in driving the exploration of pathways to becoming a university.
The debate of what course of action to take came to a head in 1989. During that year's legislative session, three competing bills were introduced. LB 160, sponsored by Jerome Warner and Doug Kristensen, would have transferred Kearney into the University of Nebraska System. (See the Historic Kearney website for additional information on LB 160.) LB 247, as originally proposed, would have studied a transfer and looked at all of higher education governance. LB 760 would simply have changed the names of the state colleges.
Only LB 247 made it out of committee; an amendment by the sponsors of LB 160 provided for the creation of the University of Nebraska at Kearney. As Doug Kristensen later said, "to call the debate around the bill fierce would be an understatement" (from "Becoming UNK" Panel Discussion). Don Weseley, one of Lincoln's senators, during the debate, opined: "the better course of action is to study, and not proceed, and possibly not irrevocably harm our higher education system. The last time we went through this was 20 years ago when UNO was created. And looking back, there are many that see that point as a definite point when the university started to decline." The majority both at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and in the city itself opposed the addition of Kearney to the system, fearing that it would reduce their share of state money. KSC’s funding per FTE was the lowest of any state postsecondary institution at $1,827; Lincoln was receiving $5,077 and Omaha $2,799.
Omaha supported the addition of Kearney to the Nebraska system, seeing many parallels between the breadth and quality of their offerings and Kearney’s. On May 19 1989, LB 247 passed; its legality was promptly challenged and affirmed by the Nebraska Supreme Court. Kearney joined the Nebraska system on July 1, 1991. In 2016, a panel discussion on "Becoming UNK" was held as part of the Year of Celebration, commemorating UNK's 25th anniversary as part of the Nebraska System. The panel included many of the original power players. (View full panel discussion on YouTube.)