Executives representing educational institutions recently met at the law offices of Holland & Hart in Las Vegas to discuss issues facing education in Nevada. Education in this state is often a hot topic of discussion and is even more so in these economic times.
Connie Brennan, publisher of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for this monthly event that brings leaders together to discuss issues pertinent to their organizations. Following is a condensed version of the roundtable discussion.
Do you believe there is enough collaboration between educational institutions in Nevada?
Debra March: One of the areas that I’m very concerned about, and have been for a number of years, is the need for a shared community vision. We keep marching down the road, and we react to whatever inspires us. We need a shared community vision that we in the community decide, that we have mandated on and want to diversify upon. We really want to prioritize education and we can’t get there without a shared vision. Education is a catalyst for working on diversification of development, and in my opinion it’s sustainable, and we have to look at education. The end game is the healthy dynamics of Nevada. You have to have a good education system to refuel that or it’s not going to work.
Jerry Krunmel: I agree. You’ve got to have a shared vision. One of the things that has occurred in the past, and in education, has been this idea of pieces. You have elementary school, middle school, high school and college. In the college range you have community college, trade schools and universities and graduate school, and it’s all kind of this conglomeration of pieces. One of the things that we are embarking on this year is this idea of a K-12 vertical alignment. If we can start bringing these pieces together and there’s a real marriage that can occur there, I think what happens is, we start getting into that shared vision.
Dr. Carolyn Yucha: We certainly have individual visions that we’ve never verbally said to one another, and there are lots of examples where efforts are being made to bridge these gaps. We have lots of things going on, but I don’t know that it’s a shared or it’s a concerted effort. Everybody here can think of things that we’re doing, but it’s all fragmented. It’s not unified. It’s not strategically done.
What is the solution to improving education in Nevada?
Daniel Klaich: I think the solution is that the State of Nevada needs to invest in education. I think that education needs to show taxpayers a return on their investment, and to do it in a way with transparency and accountability. We need to take the tax dollars and use them absolutely effectively and efficiently with reporting to the taxpayers that they deserve. All of us need to tell the state of Nevada how we touch their lives. We have got to get our story out there, and people need to understand, all of us, what we do and how we change lives. But the state of Nevada needs to step up to the plate, and they need to quit hoping that things will change, because things are not going to change because we hope they will.
Charlie Nguyen: I think locally there is an opportunity for us to make education and the process to be enrolled in education a lot more transparent and a lot more accessible, and I think it comes back to the shared vision.
Klaich: I don’t want to say there is not a culture of education, but there is not a culture of higher education in some of these under-represented communities that will be the majority in our state in less than 20 years. We are choosing what we’re going to be like as a state and whether to reach out to those communities and incorporate them into the new Nevada. If we don’t, we make a choice and the results will take decades to reverse. I suspect we’ve lost a generation in Southern Nevada already. I don’t know how many of those we can afford to give away before we create a permanent culture that I don’t know if we can turn around. I don’t think we’re there yet, mind you, but we’ve got to address that issue.
March: Let’s hope for a larger community model that pushes for doing that.
What is the culture of education in Nevada?
March: I have to take a step back and talk about the economic health of our community. You have families that are moving from school to school because of their income. The income for these families is very low; they’re moving from household to household depending upon whatever their circumstances are. We have to start to create jobs that are more diverse and are higher paid to support families. This is where it comes back to an even bigger picture. Education is important, but it is not the only component. It has to be the health and the sustainability of our community now and into the future.
Nguyen: You brought up the culture of education. I think that’s a very good point. I really believe that people want to get better, want to improve themselves, especially in the economic situation that we’re in. The question is, do people understand or know what it takes to gain entry into a college and what each college represents, as well as what the Las Vegas area has to offer, because I think awareness is the key. I think the biggest fear, the barrier, is sometimes not knowing the proper process, or where to go. In a lot of ways that would restrict or prohibit moving forward. So, to promote the culture of college, we have to put it out there for people. We have to talk about and create some sort of guide for the enrollment process. This would definitely improve the system and make it a lot easier for people.
James Dean Leavitt: We’ve done a lot of things in recent years to make it much easier. We have programs in the high schools to promote college readiness. Three of four years after I graduated from Law School, I actually realized that I had a choice. I didn’t have to go to undergrad. I didn’t have to go to Law School. I was about 30 when it occurred to me I didn’t have to do what I just did. I think we need to create that expectation when they’re in kindergarten, and that we need to devote a lot more resources. This is a generation that we can loose, so we need to move quickly in this regard, and of course, this comes down to funding.
Klaich: UNLV has opened up an academic success center, which tries to bring a lot of the services together, kind of a one stop shop for children. I think that we’ve come full circle. I remember telling my kids as they graduated from high school, ‘Well, that’s the end of hand holding. Nobody really cares if you succeed at the University. You’ve got to do it on your own. You’ve got to be a self-starter.’ All this is going to do it get kids in the door, get them registered, and wash them out. So we do have to nurture them, and we do have to do a better job. I think we figured that out maybe in the last five years or so, and I think we’re doing a lot better, but we’ve got a ways to go.
What kind of barriers are we seeing in trying to get kids in college?
Klaich: Remedial education is a huge problem, and I think the number of students that we see coming into all of our institutions that need to take some remedial course it’s probably in the high 30’s. Maybe a third of our students have to take more and more remedial courses, and we’re not talking about chemistry. We’re talking about english and math.
Kathy Cunningham: Especially writing.
Klaich: Yeah, that’s a pet peeve of mine. But I think that’s where the immigration issue comes up.
Cunningham: The other thing is to really cultivate early that interest in education so we don’t have the dropout rate that we have now in high school.
Klaich: The former chairman talked about parents and the number one indicator of whether a child is going to success in college or not is whether he or she has two college educated parents. If you look at any single indicator, that is the most significant and the more defining on whether you have a child who is going to succeed.
Krunmel: One of the things that we have done is accepted a standard of mediocrity, and we have accepted a standard of the status quo. I present a different expectation when I went into classes. I would say, we have a lot to do and not very much time to do this, so let’s get started. That set the standard. That set the expectation for the students that things were a lot different, and it wasn’t a party day and we actually got things accomplished.
John Valery White: What we have is a talented kid who is thinking about dropping out of high school because they don’t see any reason to go to a university and do anything else. What they see is, “I need a job and there’s a job over there that I think I can get.” They’ll roll the dice on that.
Yucha: We have a problem as an immediate gratification society. People say, ‘I need my stuff and I need it now,’ versus saying ‘I’m going to save my money, invest in my future.’ Yes, education is an investment.
How competitive is higher education?
Cunningham: There is typically different reasons people choose the University of Phoenix versus us. A lot of it is in the delivery matter as well as some people feel strongly about the face connection. We do a competitive analysis every year with the University of Phoenix. In the eight years I have been at Regis and just in the Henderson community, we probably have five or six universities in Nevada, so the competition for higher education has become a lot stronger.
Charlie Nguyen: The key to that is a perceived competition, because I think if you look at the population in Vegas and the number of enrollment all of us have in this room combined, we’re still not where we need to be in terms of educating Las Vegas. I think people go to UNLV or Boyd Law School or Regis for different reasons, for different programs, for different needs. So there’s not really a competition there, that is the perceived competition. We need to get over the fact that we’re not here to compete with one another. We’re here to promote education as a whole. That is my goal; to reach out to all of these schools to say let’s get together and work on it and make education friendly, make education accessible, make education relevant. But I think the stair stepping approach to somebody who is interested in school to actually enroll in the program is there for us, and we recognize that, and that’s important.
Is education in Nevada considered an asset for economic development?
Klaich: They [companies considering locations here] do look at our workforce and the graduates we’re going to produce, and we have done a terrible job of meeting their needs. We’ve got all of the natural advantages. If you just look at demographics and the jobs that are needed in Nevada over the next 15 years, we’re not producing them. They are graduates and jobs, or they’re jobs that require a level of skills, whether that be an associate degree, a certificate, a baccalaureate degree or a master degree. We’re not producing them. We have to product a more highly educated skilled workforce, and we’re not doing it, and we’re not going to get the kind of economy that all of us want as Nevadans unless we do something about it. It’s just too easy. And yet it’s so scary because we’re not doing anything to make it happen.
Krunmel: If their workforce needs are college graduates and they see the public system and the private system combined doesn’t appear to be producing the number of graduates or the number of employees that they’re going to need in the foreseeable future, they might look to go somewhere else.
How can we make education more efficient and accountable?
White: When it comes to accountability, the private institution fails, they close, the investors lose their money. With a public school, it’s unaccountable, it fails, and the taxpayers pay for it. So the taxpayers demand accountability, and this produces slowness. If we can smooth it out and find that soft spot, the accountability, information and transparency to the public will be efficient. But I think in the end, it comes down to, we work for the taxpayers, and the taxpayers need the accessibility, and that burden isn’t sent away, but it’s a burden that we’re suppose to have because we have that obligation to taxpayers. I think that part of it is that we haven’t done a good enough job of sorting and bridging that transition where we explain very clearly that a university is a cluster of opportunities. It’s a place to come and to re-gauge and rebuild yourself.
Yucha: UNLV is a big system. It takes a long time to change it. We are slow. The bigger you are, the slower you are.
March: We need to work on modeling behavior, mentoring and exposing people to the opportunity. How often do we see our industries really engaging with our young people that are making career decisions so they really understand. We need to find some ways to help children in modeling and showing professions so they can really learn something about it.
Leavitt: Part of that is the parent’s job, but, we’re also talking about, how we can impart that knowledge to those that don’t have it. I think it’s a responsibility because not every child has the same benefits growing up.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Since this roundtable was held, Debra March has retired from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and now serves as a councilwoman for the City of Henderson.