Bill Clinton speaks during Howard University's 145th commencement ceremony on May, 11, 2013, in Washington. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

Howard University leaders on Friday hailed the second-largest freshman class in 15 years, an influx of 1,596 new students who have helped the school rebound from an enrollment plunge a year ago.

University President Sidney A. Ribeau, speaking at a convocation on the campus in Northwest Washington, told the Class of 2017 that its size is evidence that Howard is on the rise after a trying year for one of the nation’s most prestigious historically black centers of higher learning.

“Now, I’m not one to argue with the pundits and the newspapers,” Ribeau said, “but I think numbers need to speak for themselves sometimes. There’s a demand for the Howard product. There’s a demand for a Howard education. And these students represent that demand.”

Total enrollment stands at more than 10,330, Ribeau said, up 3 percent from the fall 2012 count of 10,002. That marks a partial recovery from last year’s drop of 5 percent.

Last year’s enrollment decline, along with financial troubles at the university hospital, federal budget cuts and other issues, generated internal debate over the management and future of the university. Its standing in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings has fallen. Its credit rating was downgraded this week by Moody’s Investors Service.

But Ribeau and other university officials say Howard will survive and thrive. “Let me say, we are strong here at Howard,” said Addison Barry Rand, chairman of the board of trustees. “No matter what people may say on the outside, we are strong here at Howard.”

Founded in 1867, Howard will mark its sesquicentennial when first-year students such as Jarrett Powell and Natalie Honor are scheduled to graduate.

Both said they chose Howard, a private university with annual tuition and fees of about $22,700, over home-state universities with a lower price. Both said they are the first in their family to attend Howard.

Powell, 18, of West Palm Beach, Fla., called Howard “the place where African Americans come as a foundation to strive for better things.” Honor, 18, of Los Angeles, said Howard offers “the perfect experience and opportunity to begin shaping myself.”

As they were interviewed outside Cramton Auditorium, a couple dozen students, faculty and staff members were holding a demonstration to draw the board’s attention to various grievances.

Some university employees said they were worried about job security. Some students and a few professors said they wanted more transparency on the university’s fiscal condition.

“We need positive action from the administration and also the board to fix the issues we currently face,” said Gregory S. Jenkins, a professor of physics and astronomy who helped organize the rally.

Valerie Previl, 21, a senior from New York, said some students were getting “fed up” with hearing about the university’s troubles without getting answers. Her message to the administration: “Definitely talk to us. Let’s open up the channels of communication.”

Willie Lucas Jr., an electrician and longtime employee, said he was demonstrating to show his concern over the university’s finances. He said his wife and daughter graduated from Howard. “I just hate to see Howard going down,” Lucas said. “I love Howard University. . . . I’m worried about the state of the university, period.”

Ribeau, who has led the university since 2008, projected confidence in his 18-minute speech inside the auditorium as he and faculty members gathered in their formal academic robes to welcome the new students. Near him as he spoke were trustees and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), a Howard alumnus. Behind Ribeau sat Renee Higginbotham-Brooks, vice chairwoman of the board and a sharp internal critic of the president and the chairman.

“There are a lot of believers right here in this room — and believers in Howard University,” Ribeau said. “Nothing is impossible if one believes in the possibilities of life. . . . This year is going to be a great year for Howard University, for the Class of 2017.”