A year ago, the Silver State was ranked 50th in the nation for the quality of its public K-12 education, in an Education Week survey, and was reeling from monumental budget cuts for K-12 and higher education for the 2009-10 biennium that few felt we could recover from.
Now, a year later, Nevadans face even greater cuts, totaling 29 percent from higher education, and 27 percent from K-12.
Many fear these cuts will do irreparable harm. Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) Chancellor Dan Klaich angrily warned lawmakers last year that, “If you want to continue to live in a state that consistently ranks in the bottom of every education and quality of life measure, then by all means, sit back and watch your state burn.”
Could this year’s proposed cuts set that blaze?
It’s been said that breakdowns can create breakthroughs—things fall apart so they can fall together. If that’s really true, perhaps Nevada is on the verge of a breakthrough.
Dire Straits for Higher Education
Following Governor Sandoval’s budget proposal earlier this year, UNLV began using a term few outside academic circles had ever heard: financial exigency.
As UNLV President Neal Smatresk explains, financial exigency is one of two options—the other being curricular review—for relieving tenured faculty. Invoking financial exigency indicates conditions so dire that survival of the institution is threatened, and its ability to support compensation for tenured and untenured faculty is insufficient. Similar to corporate bankruptcy, financial exigency is the most drastic action colleges and universities take to respond to financial difficulties.
To date, Smatresk has only given notification of the possibility for financial exigency; actually declaring it is the Board of Regents’ responsibility, should they deem it appropriate.
“It’s highly unusual for universities to relieve tenured faculty,” says Smatresk. “It’s a national black eye.” However, several universities, including Florida State and Clark Atlanta, have recently laid off tenured faculty without declaring financial exigency.
Smatresk can’t avoid reading about education’s financial woes and takes issue with Publisher/CEO Connie Brennan’s open letter to him in the March 2011 issue of Nevada Business Magazine, in which she states, “In the Governor’s State of the State address he expressed his frustration by saying the, ‘only suggested answer for our educational woes is more and more money.’ Clearly you believe that to be true.’”
“I disagree with that,” Smatresk retorts. “UNLV has had a progressive series of cuts totaling $49.6 million over a period of four years. And the next proposed cuts are $47.5 million, which would have to be done by 2012. In other words, we would have 11 months to achieve target reductions that duplicate what we’ve seen over the last four years. The statement that we keep asking for more is wrong. We’re asking to be allowed to serve the students of Nevada and not be cut as drastically.”
Smatresk cites educational statistics of 11 states, including Nevada, with populations between 500,000 and 3 million. “When you look at total funding for higher ed in these states, we’re dead last. Wyoming spends $602 per person; we spend $207. Mississippi and Arkansas spend $311. Have that in perspective, because people act as though we in higher education in Nevada are spendthrifts who don’t run efficient, effective programs and only know how to ask for more. I want to categorically tell you we’re not. We perhaps run the leanest institution in the country, in my opinion.”
While enrollment at UNLV has fallen due to the recent vertical program cuts, the University of Nevada, Reno’s enrollment is up by about 500 students over last year’s 17,000. “We have the largest and most diverse class in our history,” said President Milton Glick, “and more National Merit Scholars than at any time in our history. Last year, we gave 66 percent more degrees to undergrads than we did a decade ago. But, many of these accomplishments happened before last year’s cuts had fully taken effect, and it doesn’t count all the upcoming cuts.”
Those last cuts of $44 million led to the closure of 23 degree programs, 29 units, and numerous program closures and reorganizations.
For 2012, an additional $60 million in cuts are proposed. UNR will be bracing for the elimination of 225 positions, as well as closure or significant reduction of numerous degrees and programs, including theater, dance and French, and several university services, including Disability Resources.
Nevada State College (NSC) President Lesley Di Mare, who stepped in when former president, Dr. Fred Maryanski, passed away in July 2010, is now charged with trimming $8 million from NSC’s budget. It means freezing 32 budgeted positions—or 25 percent of faculty and staff. Additionally, 130 sections will be cut this fall, which would hinder students’ ability to graduate on time.
NSC has seen enrollment increase by 40 percent in just the last two years. “Our retention rate for first-time, full-time freshmen is a little over 10 percent of the national norm—remarkable for an 8-year-old college,” says Di Mare. An NSC fact sheet reveals that, when compared to six other recent public college start-ups (including Arizona State University, Di Mare’s former employer), NSC leads the pack in terms of enrollment growth, at 27 percent in its first eight years.
Projected cuts, Di Mare fears, could drastically affect enrollment and retention.
“Students won’t be able to get the sections they need, and it’s hard for students to transfer, because they can’t get a four-year degree at a community college, and at UNLV they won’t be able to afford tuition. They may drop out altogether.” This is of grave concern in a state where college completion rates remain low.
“If the governor’s proposals stand, I think it will take 5-10 years to recover,” Di Mare says.
Community colleges in the state have seen strong surges in enrollment as displaced workers look to update their skills quickly and affordably. Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC) saw its enrollment grow by roughly 500 students between 2008-09 and 2009-10.
“There’s great concern about Nevada’s last-place ranking in terms of completion rates at all levels,” says TMCC President Dr. Maria C. Sheehan. “Yet we’ve made dramatic strides. We’ve almost doubled our graduation rate over the last four years, with the strongest improvement made over the last two years. Our goal for entering students, for the full-time degree seekers coming this fall, is to have a 10 percent greater chance for graduation than the national rate, and we believe we can do it. We have several new strategies in place.” Sheehan refers to TMCC’s new efforts for tracking, advising, supporting and providing career development assistance for students, beginning in fall 2010.
However, such goals are in doubt with the proposed TMCC cuts of $10.3 million. “The impact we are bracing for is not being able to serve 6,000 students in the coming semesters and eliminating 435 class sections, or 217 faculty members,” says Sheehan. “And I’m only talking about the for-credit side. If we go to the non-credit side, we’re looking at displacing approximately 160 part-time faculty…Coming up on the other side could take us a decade or two. You get to the point where there’s nothing more to cut.”
Meanwhile, President Michael Richards at the College of Southern Nevada (CSN) says the school offers about 120 programs and, among other things, provides about 30 percent of the state’s nurses and other healthcare technicians. Enrollment between 2007 and 2010 has increased 11 percent. The college is currently at 95 percent of capacity, and the college repeatedly enrolls more students than the number funded by the state. All this while CSN has seen its funding drop 17.3 percent in four years.
Compare that to the proposed 29.3 percent cut proposed for 2012. “It would mean the closure and moth-balling of some of our nine sites and centers,” explains Richards. These are access sites that have meant convenient classes for many students in Southern Nevada; CSN is proposing a budget cut plan addressing eight of these centers, affecting roughly 870 full-time equivalent students. Additionally sections would be reduced by about 28 percent. “This translates to 13,000 enrollments lost by the end of the biennium, rolling back to levels of more than a decade ago,” says Richards. “You can’t turn away 13,000 enrollments from CSN and expect business as usual in our economy.”
Ultimately, Richards says, the result of cutting nearly one-third of CSN’s budget is much-needed workforce preparation that a state suffering high unemployment can scarcely afford. “The access students will have to workforce training is sharply reduced, and for those who do enroll, the time to graduation is protracted because of the shortage of classes and the opportunities they have to develop skills they need to graduate.”
Struggles in K-12
Nevada’s K-12 woes have also been well-publicized. The U.S. Census Bureau places Nevada 47th on its Best Educated Index. According to an article written by Washoe County School District Superintendent Heath Morrison, only 50 percent of Nevada’s students, on average, make it to graduation. “Our drop-out rate is 24 percent higher than the national average. And it’s no secret that those graduating seniors are nowhere near as prepared as they should be for colleges or careers,” he said.
However, with two new superintendents in the state’s largest school districts—Morrison in Washoe County, now in his second year; and Dwight D. Jones, who just took the helm of the Clark County School District (CCSD) last December—there’s reason to be optimistic.
Morrison, who hails from Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the largest and most successful school districts in the country, was intrigued by Nevada’s unique challenges and the Board of Trustees’ commitment to school reform.
Upon arrival, Morrison promised to visit every school, and try to meet with every teacher and parent that he could, to define the districts strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. The resulting strategic plan is what he calls “our business plan for approaching the next five years. It’s our pledge to the community.”
The plan, entitled Envision WCSD 2015, sets forth high standards for students at every level, including challenging courses in math, reading and writing in elementary school, algebra in eighth grade and college preparatory courses in high school.
“It’s already generating good results,” says Morrison. “Eighty-four percent of our elementary schools saw their scores go up last year, and our graduation rates went up 7 percent in just one year.” Test scores have also gone up in the district.
Before coming to Clark County, the fifth largest district in the country, Jones served as Commissioner of Education in Colorado, having achieved marked bipartisan educational reform.
“We’ve got to change the culture so that the community demands better results,” says Jones. “We need an insistence from the community and parents that says, we want kids ready by exit, so they can access post-secondary education or a career. I think our young people can work a lot harder than we’re expecting them to work right now.”
On the CCSD agenda are improved measures for evaluating and improving teacher and principal effectiveness; a state-of-the-art data system that makes schools competitive by enabling parents to compare schools and districts in terms of their performance; a more relevant, rigorous core curriculum; more empowerment among schools; and decentralization of school resources. Based on a plan he helped establish as commissioner of education, the Colorado Growth Model, which considers students’ starting points and proficiencies, as well as measuring individual growth over time, is an open-source plan that has now been adopted by 14 states, with Nevada being among them. Working together, Jones and Morrison will be responsible for implementing the Growth Model here.
Additionally, both districts are working with local colleges and universities to make college placement tests part of the 12th-grade curriculum, as an effort to improve readiness. And, among WCSD’s plans is the implementation of the Academy and Signature Program, which, in conjunction with the local business and higher education community, forms academies within the local high schools that enable students to focus on specific career fields. “It provides total public choice in high school,” says Morrison, “so that Reno High might have one program, like nursing, and McQueen High might have another, like IT, and so on. Then those kids go seamlessly into those college programs. We’d have kids who have been immersed in careers in high school and college, which helps us to retain a competitive workforce here in Nevada.”
Of course, with all these exciting plans in place, the looming budget cuts are even more disheartening. Roughly $74 million has been taken from WCSD over the last three years; the governor’s proposed budget for the coming biennium includes another $75 million cut for WCSD.
“Just to give you a sense of what that means, last year we were the first district that got all five employee organizations together to determine where cuts would come from,” explains Morrison. “We increased class sizes, we deferred textbooks, we dipped into the contingency fund, renegotiated contracts, cut central services and were able to cobble together about $35 million. This year, if we do all that again, we’re still looking at another $40 million.”
For CCSD, Governor Sandoval’s proposed budget includes using half of the district’s bond reserves–$300 million worth—as an operating budget. “I agree the state is in crisis and that we all have to make sacrifices,” says Jones. “But what’s the best way? We can’t just cut our way to better schools. I certainly think there’s a fine line between reforming school districts and avoiding a crisis that could devastate the districts as well.”
Still, Jones remains optimistic. “With this economic downturn, what better opportunity to get better results?” he says. “Even with this budget crisis, I believe we can realign the district to work better for kids than it’s working now.”
What’s at Stake?
Though pockets of optimism remain, education leaders in the state generally agree that the large-scale cuts proposed could do more harm than good to the state. Glick references a recent survey conducted by the Retail Association of Nevada, which showed that 52 percent of Nevadans favored tax increases over cuts to education and health care—surprising to many in this state that touts its commitment to low taxes as a selling point.
“I think what’s at stake is our future prosperity,” says UNR’s Glick. “I think it’s generally recognized in this state that gaming will not be able to provide the extent of prosperity and economic benefit in the future that it has in the past, and we’re going to need to create a new kind of economy that’s more tech-based. That requires an educated workforce, and that’s greatly at risk.”
A UNR report entitled Serving the Silver State reveals that six in 10 jobs in the future will require a college certificate or degree.
Glick also points to a recent Wall Street Journal poll showing that Nevada ranks near the bottom of states in attracting new businesses; despite Nevada’s business-friendly tax structure, its low rankings for education are unappealing.
“Time and again companies have demonstrated that they want to locate to a place with fine universities,” says Smatresk. “It’s a quality of life issue, it’s a child issue and it relates to the demographics of their customers. If we reduce access to higher education, we’ll be slow to join those cities.”
In terms of economic impact, numerous reports show that these substantial cuts will be felt beyond the walls of the institutions themselves. According to a report by the University’s Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER), “for every dollar invested by the state, the university generated an additional $5.8 in economic activity to the Southern Nevada community.”
Elsewhere, the story is similar. The UNR report shows a local economic impact of $1 billion.
The College of Southern Nevada infused $864.8 million into the Southern Nevada economy in 2008-09, with taxpayers earning a 9.2 percent rate of return for every dollar spent at CSN. And 85 percent of Nevada State College’s alumni live and work in Nevada, with the majority employed in healthcare, educational services, business and management.
As Di Mare points out, education affects earnings, too. “A BS or BA degree earns you, over a lifetime, a million or more dollars as compared to an associate only or no degree at all.”
The Changing Landscape of Higher Education
The mood isn’t quite so gloomy among the state’s for-profit colleges, which have experienced national growth near 10 percent since the start of the recession. And, for-profits excel at ensuring their students receive federal financial aid; 88 percent of full-time, low-income students at for-profit colleges receive Pell Grants, as compared to 76 percent at public, four-year institutions. Not only that but, thanks to good old fashioned competition, for-profits are ahead of the curve in strengthening their online offerings, which continue to provide access to students who otherwise might not be served. This recently earned high marks in a 2010 U.S. Department of Education report entitled Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning.
Here in Nevada, the University of Phoenix operates two campuses and three satellite learning centers, and accommodates a total of 7,200 students around the state. In terms of program growth, Kathy Gamboa, Territory Vice President, Mountain-Plains Region, says, “We’re seeing a big explosion in human services programs, and a lot of people looking at counseling and social services professions. And criminal justice is seeing a lot of activity.” In fact, University of Phoenix now offers courses on-site at the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, which enables employees to complete their degrees.
While the situation for public institutions is severe, Gamboa says University of Phoenix’s biggest challenge right now is keeping up with the needs of the community. “Being for-profit affords us the opportunity to move a little faster,” she says. “An organization may come to us with an idea for a program, and we’re able to work a little faster to put a program together.” She refers to the recent development of a green and sustainable energy program, as well as an autism certification program for teachers. “We try to fit into niches and help where we can when we see programs being cut from the non-profit areas.”
Kathy Cunningham, Associate Regional Dean for National University in Las Vegas, echoes these sentiments, referring to important community partnerships: with the College of Southern Nevada to develop transfer opportunities; with the Las Vegas Fire Department to offer an on-site Master of Public Administration program for firefighters; and with the Clark County School District on outreach events.
Cunningham says National University’s biggest challenge is in spreading the word about its offerings. “The Las Vegas market isn’t often familiar with education providers, and that stems from the low number of people with degrees in this state.” In fact, only 20 percent of the Las Vegas population has college degrees. “So educational awareness is what most schools struggle with.”
While many in public higher education see for-profits as competition that may further threaten their existence, Cunningham and Gamboa both insist that their goal is the same. “I see more people looking into educational opportunities…we don’t all compete with each other,” says Cunningham. “A continued emphasis on getting the education level up in the state is what we all need to work towards.”
Some Good News About Education
There are several things happening in higher education that Nevadans can really get excited about. First, the Kenny Guinn Memorial Millennium Scholarship Fund has been a given a small reprieve; Governor Sandoval has recommended replacing the $10 million taken from it for legislative operating expenses, and, following Guinn’s death last summer, private donations helped to fill the coffers further. It’s expected that the scholarship, which has, to date, helped fund more than 59,000 Nevada students’ educations, will continue until at least 2016, although its terms may change. One such proposal receiving strong legislative support requires community service as part of earning the scholarship.
At the local level, the Technology Transfer Office, a partnership between UNR and the Desert Research Institute that helps move research into the marketplace, has been recently streamlined, making the process simpler and faster. Three new technology start-ups and two new licenses, including one for a drug that could help those suffering from muscular dystrophy, are the fruits of such streamlining.
At TMCC, a geothermal program, the first of its kind in the world, launches this fall, and at UNLV, a minor in solar technology has been established, in partnership with NV Energy; both will address the state’s burgeoning renewable energy economic cluster. Similar opportunities in other fields have been identified by UNLV and others, including Nevada State, which is in discussions with Qwest regarding technology training and Beckman Coulter in terms of biomedical training.
So while there’s plenty of reason for concern, there’s also plenty to celebrate about education in Nevada. It’s hoped by many working in the trenches that the breakdown will end soon, so that the true breakthroughs can begin.
Editor’s Note: At press time, UNR President Milton Glick, who was interviewed for this story, passed away. Our condolences go out to his family and friends.