An interesting trend in any recession is the resurgence of students at the university level. Higher education sees an uptick when times are tough from people looking to further their education to be more attractive hires. This is no less true in today’s economy and universities throughout the state are dealing with the benefits and pitfalls of such an increase. Recently, executives representing Nevada’s universities met at the offices of Holland & Hart in Las Vegas to discuss this trend.
Connie Brennan, publisher of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for the event. These monthly meetings are designed to bring leaders together to discuss issues pertinent to their industries. Following is a condensed version of the roundtable discussion.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Crystal Abba, Nevada System of Higher Education: There are so many challenges facing us today. From the perspective of public institutions, we have to start doing more with less. We are seeing less state funding but we are seeing enrollments grow. We also know that, going into the future, there will be an increased demand for an educated workforce. If we don’t start to graduate more students, we will be in a world of hurt in Nevada.
Francisco Virella, Art Institute: The biggest challenge for us is reaching our students. It’s finding instruction that is going to reach and engage the student.
David Fritz, Everest College: Our biggest challenge from a campus perspective is keeping up with our growth. The second challenge, from a more global perspective, is dealing with the public perception being generated by the Senate hearings in relationship to private for-profit institutions.
Nicole Ywakiem, National University Nevada: One of our biggest challenges is people viewing us as for-profit when we are actually non-profit. They automatically assume anybody that is not a state school is a for-profit school.
Lina Parra, Nova Southeastern University: The biggest challenges we have seen has been tuition. We are a non-profit, private university and the main campus is in Fort Lauderdale. We have the same rates across the board and that has affected us in this area (Las Vegas).
Kathy Gamboa, University of Phoenix: Our greatest challenge is also the perception of a for-profit institution. We do some amazing things and, unfortunately, it is discounted because the “for” is in front of profit. Our for-profit status gives us the ability to move faster and change faster. This makes us more viable for our communities that we serve. That is the reason we do what we do.
Why is a university’s “for-profit” status perceived as negative?
Fritz: That is the image that is being projected by Senator Harkin and the Government Accounting Agency (GOA) group that met in Washington. They sent secret shoppers out to for-profit institutions and gleaned from that some comments or recruiting practices that are being projected as negative to the public. The challenge with that is that those were closed hearings and the only rebuttal we can make as for-profits is in writing and those statements never get to the public.
Virella: I’m willing to bet if they can see the scrutiny we go through from a regulatory standpoint, (they would see) it really is quality education. The scrutiny we go through is comparable to public schools. When one looks at it from a quality standpoint, we are doing some good stuff there. We help the community.
Fritz: There are by far a greater number of agencies that we have to answer to to make sure our operation is clean and straightforward. We also work with a higher risk type of student than public four-year colleges do because they have higher admission standards.
Gamboa: We can also move so quickly. The opportunity is there to be a resource in Nevada when we are looking at changing our economic base. It is the entrepreneurial spirit that Nevada is founded on. It’s being able to be a player at the table.
How will colleges keep up with an increased demand?
Abba: Nevada, along with 22 other states, has signed on to the Complete College America initiative. As a state, we have committed to increase the number of students that we graduate by 1,064 every year; it’s a compounding increase. The Nevada System of Higher Education and our institutions can’t do it alone. We will be working with private institutions to make sure we meet that goal. We are doing that because we know that by 2020, over 60 percent of the jobs out there will require some type of formal education. We have to work together.
How has enrollment been affected by the economy?
Virella: It has grown a lot. We are up almost 25 percent from the fall of 2008. That’s really when we started to see a spike in growth and it hasn’t stopped.
Abba: We are the same. Particularly with our two-year institutions, it has significantly increased. People are unemployed and they are going to use that opportunity. They have time on their hands so they will use that opportunity to improve their skills and get a certificate or work on a degree.
Gamboa: You also have people that were fortunate enough not to be affected by the economy and they want to make themselves more marketable. You have people coming back saying, “I need to get my MBA now.”
Ywakiem: We have definitely increased. There are a lot of students that are looking at either a career change because of something that has happened with their employment or at job security. They are looking to secure where they are right now.
Parra: We have been very affected. We have a huge contract signed with the school district to offer any degree of license that is required in Nevada for teaching the K-12 system. If the school district is affected, we get directly affected. The school district has helped our students to meet the requirements to graduate, but they didn’t even hire 20 percent of the students that graduated this year. It got to a point where we were helping students meet requirements in other states because they were coming to us saying, “They aren’t going to hire me here, I’m going to start paying student loans, I don’t have a job, help me.”
In this economy, how can students afford to go back to school?
Fritz: A high percentage of our students receive the Pell Grant, which is somewhere around $8,000 per academic year. They are also able to borrow money through the Title IV funding at a low interest rate which the government pays while they are in school. When they are out of school, they start paying back the loans. They can also go to third-party lending. With our students, it’s not an issue of money immediately because financial assistance is available. The challenge comes in when they graduate and they don’t find a job. They have to start paying back loans after six months or they go into what is called a cohort default rate.
Abba: We have to get better about educating the general population, particularly low income families, that there is financial aid available. There is money out there; there are all kinds of federal dollars we can access. We have to start having conversations with them when they are freshmen in high school, not when they are seniors, so those families can start to plan appropriately.
Is there hope for Nevada’s consistently low scores on education indicators?
Abba: There better be, or we are in really serious trouble. If you look at Nevadans age 25 to 64, we rank 49th in the nation in terms of people who hold an Associates or Bachelor’s degree. From the higher education perspective, and I can’t stress this enough, we have to start graduating kids. It’s not enough to just get them in the door. We actually do a disservice when we bring them in, enroll them and then they don’t graduate.
Virella: We need to engage the student during the introductions. When you engage the student, they tend to stay more. I think we need to change what the teaching paradigm is today. It’s not enough to get them through the door. They have to graduate, they have to finish. That’s a huge problem. That is a key element right there, is the discussion of getting professors to engage the student. I think we need to focus on some training for professors to engage the students and get them interested in what they are learning.
Abba: A lot of times, they have so many challenges at home, especially for adults who come back. We have to provide services to support those students when they become overwhelmed.
Gamboa: In terms of remediation, I will tell you that the math and English level of students coming in is not where it should be from the K – 12 system. We spend more time with those groups to help them understand really basic things. That is something from a K – 12 perspective that we really need to help them with and work as a team to collaborate on. It’s very debilitating for a student to come in and not be successful.
Ywakiem: Right now there is not a culture of education here. I think the bottom line is trying to build up that culture of education from down up. That is going to create a mindset that college is worth going to. I don’t know how to create that culture.