When Education Week published its Chance-for-Success Index in early 2010, Nevada, again, drew negative attention for its low scores—adding to a pile of bad news that has many Nevada educators, legislators, businesses and economic development experts seriously questioning the state’s future.
By the Numbers
Within the index, which tracks key education indicators and grades states on their policy efforts and outcomes, Nevada places last with a score of D+ (the nation as a whole scores a C+). The state also falls last in its high schoolers’ attainment of diplomas, at just 47.3 percent, and second-to-last for its percentage of 18 to 24-year-olds enrolled in postsecondary education, at 39.2 percent.
It’s tough news for Nevada, which has been trying to diversify its economy and grow high-level, high-paying jobs. Not to mention the individual rewards; according to The College Board, college grads statistically earn higher incomes, vote more often, enjoy better health outcomes, have lower rates of incarceration, have higher rates of volunteerism and overall enjoy a higher quality of life than their non-grad cohorts.
Meanwhile, Nevada has suffered worse than 48 other states in The Great Recession. Cuts to the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) totaling 13 percent were made in the 2009-2010 biennium, and while schools were still reeling, an additional 6.9 percent was taken in the February 2010 special session.
So where is higher education in Nevada headed? What do these cuts mean to a state that for years has fought the taint of poor rankings in education, and how can we diversify our economy in light of them?
Cutting to the Bone
As NSHE Chancellor Dan Klaich explains, the 6.9 percent cuts mean trimming roughly $45 million more from the system’s budget, and those cuts will be allocated proportionally throughout the system.
“It’s difficult for me to overstate the impact these cuts will have on our state,” he said. “We are already way behind the curve in the number of degrees produced at all levels. We know the state and the economy we’re trying to develop requires more degrees. At the same time, we’re trying to diversify the economy away from gaming and service-level jobs. You can’t do that without a strong educational system. I appreciate the need to balance the budget, and that you can’t spend what you don’t have. But the cure here, I think, is going to be worse than the disease.”
With 28,000 students enrolled, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is the largest institution of higher education in the state, and thus bears the brunt of the budget cuts. University President Dr. Neal Smatresk puts it in plain terms: UNLV has lost nearly one-third of its state-funded budget, with cumulative cuts over the last two years totaling $58 million. Ten percent of the faculty has been lost, and over 1,000 classes have vanished from the course schedule. Yet UNLV has rolled with the punches surprisingly well.
“We’ve become incredibly efficient—not that we’ve wanted to be—and we’ve managed to maintain service levels despite the cuts,” said Smatresk. “But it’s not fair to argue that we’ve maintained all our quality, because we’ve had to use up instruction time, increase class sizes and cut services. We did it in a way that was thoughtfully calculated to produce the smallest impact on students. I almost think that was a mistake, because I think the public believes we weren’t really hurt.”
UNLV has made big cuts to the dental and medical schools, as well as athletics, student affairs, career services and the faculty development and training center. Other core departments will be on the chopping block. “Now we’re losing arms and legs,” he said.
What he now fears is tuition losses resulting from those cuts; if 2,000 students opt to go elsewhere due to a lack of courses, that calculates to a loss of $10-$12 million in tuition dollars.
With 17,000 students, the University of Nevada, Reno is coping with a cumulative two-year reduction of $55 million. University President Dr. Milt Glick says that after the first $44 million cuts, most changes affected administration and support structures. “With this additional $11 million, you can only take so much out of the support structure before academics can’t function effectively,” said Glick.
Vertical cuts on the table include the elimination of programs within the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources (CABNR), all degree programs in languages other than Spanish; divisions of the College of Education; and the entire interior design program.
“It will affect our ability to draw or retain faculty, which is why we’re doing vertical cuts. We’ve lost some key faculty in the past month, so we’re very concerned about that,” Glick added.
Nevada’s one and only state college hosts approximately 2,600 students, 75 percent of whom are transfers. More than half are over 25, and nearly all are working adults and breadwinners, making NSC highly representative of national trends. With small enrollment numbers and workforce-targeted programs, NSC’s cuts will be a relatively low $1.2 million, but still painful, says College President Dr. Fred Maryanski.
“We’re reducing staff by eliminating vacant positions. We’ve been preparing for this downturn in the budget for a while and haven’t hired many faculty in the last two years,” said Maryanski.
Meanwhile, NSC is experiencing record enrollment growth; its student population has grown 20 percent over last year, which makes hiring freezes painful.
Where’s the Growth?
Enrollments are growing everywhere. Although their numbers are still comparatively low, there are more college students enrolled in Southern Nevada than ever before. Community college enrollments, in particular, have skyrocketed, which is likely due to their affordability, flexibility and workforce development programs; enrollment is up by 7 percent, or 2,700 students, over last year at the College of Southern Nevada alone.
“Education is counter-cyclical,” explained Klaich. “It’s typical that when the economy worsens and people are losing jobs, we see people return to college.”
Fortunately, the educational bright spot seems to be the growing number of options. Private colleges are thriving.
The University of Southern Nevada is an independent not-for-profit school whose focus is on healthcare, pharmacy, nursing, healthcare administration, an orthodontics/MBA residency program and, soon, a doctoral program in dentistry. President Dr. Harry Rosenberg says that USN designs programs that ensure feasibility and workplace relevance, and offers the only pharmacy program in Nevada; as such, state budgets are of little importance.
Rosenberg sees private institutions as the future of higher education in Nevada. “There’s a limit to what the state can appropriate for education, and especially with healthcare reform, additional responsibilities will be placed on the state,” Rosenberg said. “As states get larger and more mature, you will see a complementary private educational system. In California, there are a large number of private institutions, many quite well renowned. I think it’s just that Nevada is catching up; it’s a natural evolution to have a private complementary system.”
The University of Phoenix, which has roughly 180 U.S. campuses, as well as many around the globe and numerous online programs, has gained tremendous traction capitalizing on students’ desire for choice and scheduling that fits into a working adult’s lifestyle. Southern Nevada Campus Vice President/Director Charlie Nguyen says that the University of Phoenix’s enrollment growth has been steady and strong for at least the last ten years.
“I think the budget cuts have impacted us a little bit as some of the programs we offer are being cut at public universities,” said Nguyen.
The Northern Nevada campus director and territory vice president for the University of Phoenix, Kathy Gamboa, says some of the growth they’ve experienced is due to the University of Phoenix’s ability to create programs based on demand.
“Because we’re a for-profit, we can be more proactive about change,” said Gamboa. “The state came to us about a year and a half ago about the problems they were seeing with retirement benefits, and how teachers were being affected. They expressed a need for more special education teachers, and asked us to put together a special education program. So we were able to work with the deans and put a program in place that the state felt met the needs of the educational system and those teachers.”
Kathy J. Cunningham, the Las Vegas Campus Director for Regis University in Green Valley, says her campus hosts about 250 students, with programs that specialize in bachelor’s and master’s degrees for business, education and liberal arts targeted toward working adults and career-changers. Cunningham says Regis has experienced a 35 percent increase in enrollment during this budget year. Regis also enjoys a transfer agreement with CSN, which enables students to complete three years at CSN and complete the fourth year with Regis to earn their bachelor’s degrees.
“Because of the amount of people here with low levels of education, the concept of higher education hasn’t been valued here as much as in other states in the Midwest or East Coast,” said Cunningham, adding that job losses and dwindling industries are finally driving a turn-around in this attitude.
At National University, which features programs in business, public administration, education, counseling/psychology, and nursing at the bachelor’s and master’s level, there are 1,000 students enrolled, with the majority of growth being in nursing. Associate Regional Dean Tracy McMurry says that while, again, budget cuts don’t affect National University, the school is responding by enhancing its scholarship and financial aid offerings to make it more affordable for students who might not otherwise have considered a private education in this economy.
Affordability is an Issue
Klaich suggests that much of the state’s higher education struggles are monetary. “We’re near the bottom in terms of the financial aid we provide to men and women attending college,” he said, adding that the burgeoning Hispanic population may not have the financial ability to attend college. “I think there’s a misconception that in some of those communities, there isn’t the same culture of valuing education that many more affluent communities have. It’s not the case. We’re simply not providing those men and women the ability to get a higher education.”
According to Sharon Wurm, the NSHE Director of Financial Aid, Nevada’s aid offerings aren’t adequate. “We do a calculation each year of unmet need, which compares the students who apply with those who receive aid,” said Wurm. “Our unmet need for 2008-09 is $183 million. That’s how much students had to make up on their own with private loans, work-study, etc. So we’re still short quite a bit.”
That’s why, says Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs Jane Nichols, everyone’s so worried about the Millennium Scholarship.
The Governor Guinn Millennium Scholarship Program has helped fund education for more than 59,000 Nevada high school graduates since its inception, and has been a boon to college-going rates in the state. Currently, more than 21,000 take advantage of the program. The merit-based scholarship provides approximately $25 million in disbursements each year; without it, Nevada’s aid offerings would be “the bottom of the barrel,” said Nichols.
Yet the source of the funds, tobacco settlement monies, has been steadily decreasing. Additionally, the legislature recently decided to eliminate the transfer of $7.6 million to the Millennium fund from the Unclaimed Property Program, and to transfer $5 million from the program to the state’s General Fund—in short, a net loss of $12.6 million. State Treasurer Kate Marshall worked with legislators to arrange a transfer of $200,000 into the fund to cover its bills through 2011. But without funding, the class of 2011 will not receive it.
“I see this current financial blow as sending a message to Nevadans that it’s going to be more difficult to go to college, and more expensive,” said Nichols, who worries the message this will send is that college is even further out of reach. “My fear is that, regardless of reality, the public perception that comes out of all this may set us back 10 years in terms of people understanding they can and need to go to college to build Nevada.”
It’s the Economy, Stupid
The decades-old tagline still rings true here in Nevada, and education is tightly wound up in it. “The state needs to invest in education,” said Klaich. “And they need to believe that it is an investment that will turn around and help diversify the economy.”
Many authorities concur, including Bob Cooper, Economic Development/Redevelopment Manager for the City of Henderson. “One one hand, I can cite many different programs here that are outstanding, which a lot of people aren’t even aware of. But on the other hand, I can be somewhat critical.”
Cooper is comparing Nevada to other states like Arizona and Utah, which are considerably more invested in education and developing industry clusters of the future.
“You have to play to your strengths. This ‘everyone gets an equal share’ mindset is hurting us, especially because we aren’t funding adequately as it is,” Cooper said. “Does it affect our ability to diversify? Yes. Does it hurt us when companies look to come here? Yes, we’ve lost out on projects in the past.”
These insights, and his role in creating the Southern Nevada Medical Industry Coalition, led Nguyen of the University of Phoenix Southern Nevada to approach Cooper with his idea to bring higher education leadership from Southern Nevada together to talk about the industry’s challenges.
“They wanted all the area’s higher education leaders to come together in a room and create an agenda for the future,” explained Cooper, who facilitated the meeting on April 8. “An Education Collaborative: Creating a Culture of Education in Nevada” convened at the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce office with all 15 invitees in attendance, representing public and private institutions in Southern Nevada as well as the NSHE. “With several Ph.D.’s in the room, there were a lot of great ideas floating around,” said Cooper.
One of which involves faculty; while public institutions are making painful faculty cuts, private institutions are having trouble coping with rising enrollments. The concept of sharing faculty was embraced by all.
“We came up with four areas of focus,” said Cooper. “The first is branding, and educating the public about what we do. The second is doing a better job working with legislators. The third is ramping up their work with the private sector, to make sure workforce needs are being met. And the fourth area is forming strategic alliances between higher education leaders.”
Plans are already on the table for two more meetings, in May and June, and some interest was expressed to include the Clark County School District in the future.
Can Nevada Make the Grade?
From crisis springs opportunity. In March,
Governor Gibbons signed the Blue Ribbon Education Reform Task Force into action, co-chaired by Klaich and entrepreneur Elaine Wynn. Their tasks include examining the connection between higher education and economic diversification efforts, improving educational standards and reporting findings to the 2011 Legislature, which will face the enormous task of filling a hole of roughly $3 billion.
But on the positive side, impressive work is coming out of Nevada at all levels. For example, Truckee Meadows Community College’s dental hygiene program ranks 3rd in the nation; UNR has produced six Pulitzer Prize-winners from its journalism school, which recently received a Donald W. Reynolds Foundation endowment; and UNLV’s partnership with the Brookings Institute, a Washington-based think tank, is the only one of its kind in the country.
“There are success stories every day. So despite all the negatives, I remain bullish about the future,” said Klaich. “I think we have to take advantage of this economy, and look at our systems to make sure we’re being efficient. When we are, I think we’ll gain credibility with citizens. As we produce more quality graduates, everyone will see the impact it has on diversifying our economy, and I think over time we’ll see our budgets restored.”