Educators heading up Nevada’s public and private colleges and universities came together in mid-January at the Four Seasons Hotel to discuss issues affecting higher education in Nevada. The gathering was part of Nevada Business Journal’s monthly Industry Outlook series. Connie Brennan, publisher and CEO of Nevada Business Journal, served as moderator for the roundtable, which included discussion of the challenges presented by growth, efforts to provide an educated workforce for Nevada’s business community and the struggle for funding to keep up with demands. Following is a condensed version of the discussion.
Attendees were asked to introduce themselves and their institutions and describe their greatest challenges:
John Lilley: The University of Nevada, Reno has a student body for about 15,500 this year and because we’re a land-grant university, have an outreach program in all 17 counties. Like the rest of the schools in the state, we are faced with major growth and preparing for even more. One of our major challenges is how to deal with that growth. It’s not enough just to manage it and get bigger. It’s also very important that we get better.
Paul Gianini: I’m the interim President at the Community College of Southern Nevada, with 35,000-plus students and a service area the size of the state of Virginia. It’s doing many things well, but it also suffers from wonderful problems associated with growth. I call them wonderful because I’ve been on the other side of the picture, where retrenchment was the name of the game, and I can assure you it’s a lot more fun to worry about finding faculty offices than it is to put people out on the street.
Harry Rosenberg: Nevada College of Pharmacy is a free-standing independent college of pharmacy. Right now the student population is about 330. We just graduated our first class. Our graduates are doing well and passing their board examinations at very high scores. We have 34 faculty and staff at this point, and our Board of Trustees expect to convert to a university within a very short time. Our problems and challenges, as with most of you, are how to manage growth and how to determine which new programs to put on our curriculum.
Jane Nichols: As chancellor of the University and Community College System of Nevada (UCCSN), my job is statewide. The name of the game, of course, is growth, and how to meet the needs of Nevada. Workforce needs are enormous, particularly in the healthcare areas, where we’re seeing the greatest pressure right now. Our challenge is trying to serve the fastest-growing state in the nation with limited resources. I think we’ve all changed our perspective to understand that almost every high school graduate needs some form of post-secondary education. We need to find out what that will be, and how to be there with various locations and types of institutions to meet that need.
Kerry Romesburg: Nevada State College has nearly 700 students enrolled for the spring, compared to only 177 last year, so it’s starting to finally take off a little bit. We have such a challenge in this state, not just because we are all growing with students and the influx of people to our state, but two other challenges also come with it. One is creating the facilities to house these folks. I’m sitting with a campus that has 556 acres of bare desert land upon which we’re supposed to build a campus. The problem that the chancellor just mentioned is the real scary one. We all know we are the third-worst in the nation for the number of high school students who go on to college. If we’re going to change our economy and our basis for economic growth and support and continue to wean away from gaming, we have to diversify, and we have to have an educated citizenry. If we change that participation rate and have more people coming to college, that does nothing but exacerbate the influx of students we already have. We’re trying to educate and provide access to more people, but, frankly, I just don’t know how the state is going to fund all of this. It’s an incredible challenge.
Thalia Dondero: I guess I was part of the problem of growth, since I spent 20 years on the Board of Clark County Commissioners and we encouraged that growth over the years. But I do believe in education, and that’s why I ran for office. You encourage people to go to higher education, but you have to have a place for them to sit down, and you have to have faculty. I love all eight institutions, and I think it’s amazing the programs and the quality of staff they have. If people would stop and look at each institution, they would find it is doing a good job, and they should just get in there and support it instead of haranguing about it every day.
Steve Soukup: The University of Phoenix is celebrating its 10th year in Nevada and we’re currently serving almost 4,000 students at five locations throughout the state – soon to be six. Our challenges, obviously, are with growth. One of the things we’ve been able to do is partner with corporations and business people around the state to help with some of that through tuition funding and other things that help people afford private schooling.
Donn Nimmer: ITT Technical Institute has been in Henderson since 1997. We provide associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in the technology fields. I see a couple of challenges in addition to growth. One is that Nevada students see their parents working for these big hotels. without college degrees and yet they’re doing very well, so the children ask, “Why go to college?” There are a number of benefits of higher education, and one important thing it teaches you is to become a critical thinker. Another is that people in technical fields have to come back to school eventually. Technology, they say, will be changing over at the rate of once every 32 days. So what we have to do is make these students become critical thinkers, life-long learners, and that’s probably one of our biggest challenges.
Carol Harter: UNLV is trying to become the kind of central resource every major city has at the heart of it, which is a great university. We’re challenged with trying to increase the rate of students who go to higher education. The good news is we’ve actually raised our position from 50th (among the U.S. states) to 48th or 47th. I think a lot of that came from private colleges coming into Nevada, together with all of us really making it a goal to raise the percentage of students who go on to one or another form of higher education. We are also trying to help diversify our economy. While gaming is the lynch-pin, we have many other technologically-oriented businesses that see us as a friendly business climate, and we’re trying to do everything we can to encourage those folks to move to our state and to make us a little bit less dependent on gaming. I see that as a definite goal for a higher education system.
Connie Brennan (Nevada Business Journal): You mentioned that we came up from 50th to 47th place. What role do you think the Millennium Scholarship plays in that? Is that what pushed it?
Nichols: Absolutely. I think the Millennium Scholarship has been the driver. It is the money, certainly, but more than that, it is the changing attitude of families. Most families in Nevada do not have a parent who went to college, so they do not consider it possible for students to go to college. I think the Millennium Scholarship is playing a role in changing the culture of families in Nevada, so they believe their children can go to college, and they then encourage them to take the right courses in high school to make the grades to do that. It’s that cultural change which is as important as the actual financial support. That’s why I worry. Today we anticipate the Millennium Scholarship for new students may disappear in 2008 or even sooner, depending upon a number of factors. If it goes away, part of the issue will be where to find financial assistance for students who cannot go to college. But more than that, how do we sustain the cultural change in Nevada – the attitude that all children can go to college and get a better life?
Gianini: I was a college president in Florida for almost 20 years in the ’80s and ’90s, and I feel like I’ve been recycled, because I’m hearing the same problems. I can tell you what happened to the Bright Futures program, which was their equivalent of the Millennium. They just kept raising the requirements. They couldn’t get rid of it politically, but they could raise the requirements so high that only a few people could get them and keep them. Economic development is the name of the game, because Florida found it couldn’t center the state’s economy around Mickey Mouse. When Sept.11 hit, the entire state economy just stopped. You might as well learn from their mistakes and do different things.
Soukup: We might have some hope. Representative Gibbon’s initiative to fund the education budget first in the state is a great step in the right direction.
Harter: Yes, but it’s not higher education – it’s K-12.
Soukup: But couldn’t we piggyback on that in order to be able to get some momentum to look at funding higher education as well?
Romesburg: I think the proposal puts us in the crosshairs.
Harter: It absolutely does. The Legislature will fund K-12 off the top and what’s left, everybody else fights over, and that includes us. We’ll be in the mix with mental health, prisons, etc., all at the same level. It’s very hurtful, and I think it’s a very bad policy for us.
Romesburg: Legislators are going to be looking at places to cut; they’re going to be looking at what fees could be raised, and when you start looking at fees, whether we like it or not, public higher education is sort of the balancing part of the budget.
Lilley: The point I was trying to make earlier is that it’s not enough to manage growth, but we must strive in the midst of that incredible challenge to get better as institutions and provide a higher quality. It can’t be just about growth – it has to be about growth and quality.
Romesburg: John raises a point that’s been debated in so many states, and that is access versus quality. The business community is looking more at access. The truth is, they need employees, and they need an educated and trained workforce, and those are numbers. If quality has to slip a little to get a few more people through, it’s not going to concern them that much. Those of us around this table must always have the issue of quality at the forefront. We have to, because otherwise we are going to short-change the population of this state.
Lilley: I was talking with a businessman yesterday who had just brought a high-tech company to Reno. He tests job applicants by asking some fundamental questions. He said he asks on the test, “What is 10 percent of 100?” and 63 percent cannot answer correctly. So, he’s concerned about the quality piece in K-12.
Nichols: This brings us to a challenge the whole country is facing in terms of higher education, but particularly here in Nevada. The student we are educating, and will be educating in the years to come, does not look like the student we have educated in the past. That student is much more likely to be minority, much more likely to be non-English speaking or have a first language other than English. The success of our state depends upon our ability in higher education to successfully educate that student to the same level of quality as all students. Our data do not make us look successful in this arena. We have not been successful in recruiting and retaining the minority first-generation college student. We have to learn how to do that, and we have to learn how to put in place the support services and the help.
Dondero: With the mobility of the students in this state, there’s no stability and no continuity in their education.
Lilley: Yes, and if they don’t have permanent housing, it really is a problem, and it is increasingly a problem in Washoe County.
Rosenberg: From a perspective of a professional school, communication skills are a tremendous problem for us. Last year we interviewed about 400 students, and many just did not have the competency we expect them to have. They need the ability to talk with other healthcare professionals as well as patients.
Brennan: I think what you’re saying – and maybe politically you can’t say it – is that the public school system is doing a pretty bad job of teaching kids basics before they go on to college.
Lilley: I think that’s true to some extent, but it sounds too close to blaming the victim. The biggest challenge for all of us is how do we plant dreams in those families. Kids from families that have dreams, no matter how poor they are, will make it. Those without dreams don’t make it. Tell me how to plant dreams, and we’ve got this problem solved. Too often we blame the schools, and the schools are dealing with almost insurmountable problems that are brought to them from the home. I don’t know how to get at that part of the equation, but I think we have to talk about it openly, and not just blame the schools for all the stuff that’s coming into them.
Nimmer: In Oregon or Utah, when I called home to report a problem with a student, some significant other was there. When I call home here, nobody answers – it’s not even the right phone number. There is no support structure. So it’s really hard to point a finger and say, “These students aren’t prepared for that higher level of education.”
Harter: It requires us to create an infrastructure of support for students that they didn’t used to need. We have to provide them with tutoring, English as a second language and remedial education. The cultural issues are huge here, because the background helps the parent know how to prepare the child for college. In addition to the dream, they just don’t have the background to understand that college is accessible and that there is assistance to help students be successful.
Gianini: Basically, our job at the community college is to take those students from where they are and bring them up to a level where they can transfer to a university. We’re a two-year school, but it’s not a two-year program. It’s almost a three-year program, because they need a year of preparation before they can successfully enter and complete a program like nursing.
Harter: For more than half our nursing students, English is not their first language. So we immediately have a language-training program to help pass a very rigorous set of science courses and then the licensure exam. Even bright students find it very difficult to take anatomy if their English is poor.
Nichols: I think what we’re seeing in nursing is what we’re going to see in a lot of fields as we identify critical needs, many of them health-related. The Legislature provided the incentive for us to rise to the occasion. What the business community has not done effectively – and what we need them to do – is to communicate adequately to the political community and the Legislature in particular, where these tremendous needs are, so higher education can respond in a timely fashion and enlist public support and financial support from the Legislature to meet those needs. Understanding the link between the public voice of the politicians and our ability to respond is very important for the business community. They have to make their needs heard and support higher education if we’re going to be successful.
Kathleen Foley (Nevada Business Journal): Economic development people trying to recruit companies to come to Nevada say the workforce here is not technically educated enough. Mr. Nimmer, is one of your goals to help that whole process along and produce more tech people?
Nimmer: It is. I also sit on the economic development counsel, and that’s probably the number-one question of businesses coming in. They tell us we just don’t have the technical workforce. We don’t do a really good job telling businesses coming here what we do have.
Lilley: In Washoe County, we hear the complaint that there is a lack of technical training, and yet we are still exporting technical people to California. We need to be working more closely with business, and I think we’re all trying to do that.
Harter: Our engineering graduates until very recently were going out of state, mainly to California, because there weren’t enough jobs in Nevada at the level where they wanted to work. There’s a mismatch somehow. Recent studies pointed that out that we were very low in the graduation of scientists and engineers, but the reason we were is that we were responding to the marketplace, which didn’t have the kinds or numbers of jobs to build those programs. Whereas, we cannot keep our computer science students through graduation. They do internships and get hired for $85,000 in their junior year because they already have enough high-level skills. They are mostly going to industry partners, often in gaming, who take them out early after an internship.
Gianini: And it’s not only in the more erudite fields, like IT, it’s even in areas like automotive.
Harter: That’s right.
Nimmer: Believe it or not, we’re exporting our electronics students out of state.
Gianini: If people look at the statistics for students actually walking out with their diplomas, the numbers are horrible. But if you consider people who have gone to college, gotten what they wanted, and are gainfully employed doing what they really want to do, the numbers escalate dramatically.
Gianini: And a tremendous number come back, because they’ve learned enough to know that they don’t know everything, and to keep up in their field, they come back.
Lilley: I think that’s one point that does need to be made. There are not a large number of students who are prepared to do engineering in this state.
Lilley: And that brings us back to science and math, and encouraging young people very early on. We’re now recruiting in middle school and doing it bilingually, saying, “Your students can go to college. There is a great future for them. You’ve got to make the right choices in high school,” etc. I’m hopeful that’s going to make a difference. I think it is, because our student bodies are becoming more diverse in north and south.
Nichols: There’s a study coming out nationally, the American Diploma Project, which Nevada participated in. It shows that the exact same skills needed to be successful in post-secondary education – primarily communication skills and math skills – are needed in the workforce. There is no difference. When we talk about being prepared to go to college, we’re talking about being prepared to enter the workplace.
Romesburg: The regents have recently taken a very positive step with regard to the Millennium Scholarship. Last year at this roundtable, we talked about the fact that we have the same percentage of Millennium scholars needing remediation as the general population coming to college. Everybody was saying, “How can this be?” It was because the qualification was set at a grade point average, without talking about the kinds of courses it took to comprise that average. So students who were getting close to graduating from high school dummied down their last year or two of high school to take easier courses to make sure they got the 3.0 average and got the scholarship money. The regents have taken some steps now to define the kinds of courses people need to take to qualify. The more we can encourage students to take what used to be called a college-preparatory program, the better off we’re going to be in terms of preparation for working, as well as for going to college and competing with the rest of the country.