Consistently ranking low on national indicators, education in Nevada is among business leaders’ and economic development professional’s biggest concerns. Recently, executives representing this challenging industry met at the law offices of Holland & Hart in Las Vegas to discuss ways in which to improve Nevada’s education.
Connie Brennan, publisher of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for the monthly event that brings leaders together to discuss issues pertinent to their professions. Following is a condensed version of the roundtable discussion.
Is enrollment at universities up?
Dr. Carolyn Yucha: Yes. If you can’t find jobs, you may as well go to school. Enrollment is up, despite the fact that tuition has increased. In some fields, it’s actually doubled.
Kathy Cunningham: I think a lot of people are trying to reinvent themselves, trying to figure out what their next position is and to be ready for that. A lot of people are taking advantage of being displaced from one job, especially people that were working in jobs without bachelor’s degrees. They now realize they must get a four-year degree. Or, on the other side of the graduate level, people realizing they want to be ready for the next promotion.
Are you dealing with more students in need of remedial education when they start college?
Julie Williamson: I think we all are, especially if you take an adult worker who has been away from school for ten years. You have to start at ground level, all over again. I don’t think we’re taking them from high school and preparing them for what college has to offer. There’s still a big gap there, understanding how to enroll themselves, finances and financial aid. The lack of personal responsibility is the biggest thing I see. There is more hand-holding than in the past. They’re not problem-solvers.
John Ball: If you’re watching what’s going on at the Clark County School District (CCSD) right now, with Superintendent Jones and Deputy Superintendent Pedro Martinez working on the graduation initiative, a piece of that is a bold move on the issue of remedial course level and what they refer to as the “rigor” of curriculum there. They’ve got a plan that, within the next couple of years, is going to phase out remedial coursework altogether. They’ve got a crash boot-camp strategy to get folks up to grade level and phase out the remedial classes that have been going on as an accepted part of the curriculum for a long time. We’re watching that with a lot of open enthusiasm. There is a new level of quality they’re trying to introduce to the curriculum. I’m optimistic. They’re working really hard, down to the individual student level to say, “How do we get folks up to an acceptable level of success?” I think they’re also taking a look at the relevance of the curriculum for today’s workplace and global economy.
Dr. Eucharia Nnadi: For us, it’s different because we are an upper-level institution. We don’t accept students right out of high school. We accept them after the individual has met the prerequisites, which often means a minimum of two years of college before they can come to us. Most of the communication at that level is done by the schools that offer liberal arts, which we don’t offer. Once they get into the university, remediation is built into our curriculum for those students who are struggling. We don’t get into remediation for high school graduates.
Why is Nevada at the bottom of quality measurements when it comes to education?
Yucha: It’s because of the culture here; for years you could get jobs and make a lot of money without much education. We have a very diverse society here. Many of our businesses need uneducated workers to make ends-meet. You need uneducated people to clean hotel rooms and park cars and do those things. In fact, if the parents did well without an education, they might not see the need for their children to get an education.
Ball: This economy was so successful in spinning off jobs, particularly jobs with a low entry ratio, that Nevada didn’t have to pay attention to some of the education culture issues. The myth of the $100,000 valet job kept us from seeing that other places were actually building an educational foundation in work-force readiness and quality level that we were not keeping up with. People, pretty universally now, understand that that model is not going to get us where we need to go. I hear a lot of people paying more attention to taking over the educational success and really getting on board with what’s going on. We’re having the quality of education discussions now that we haven’t had before, largely because we simply didn’t have to. Anyone that wanted a job could get one. Even with a 50 percent dropout rate, we had the lowest unemployment rate in the country. We now have to pay attention. We’re not as special as we thought we were. We need to get in the game and start being competitive.
How difficult is it to find qualified staff?
Yucha: When we hire here, particularly if you’re trying to hire doctorally prepared people, they have to move. That really impedes us. Doctorally prepared people tend to read the paper and check out what the school system is like. You could be great here, but you still have this surrounding environment. There are people that either love Las Vegas or hate it. I think it’s hard to recruit.
Williamson: We also share a lot of common faculty. We’ve even looked at people who have gone into retirement, to try and get them out of retirement and teach part-time. You also have to remember, we’re evolving technology-wise and a lot of them can’t keep up with the technology in the classrooms. I say every day, give it five years and we’re going to have a shortage of PhD’s because we’re not producing them fast enough for the demands that the accreditation bodies have put on us.
Cunningham: We do share a lot of people. It’s not unusual for a person that teaches at UNLV part-time to teach for National and other schools because they’re a known commodity and they’re in demand.
Why would a student choose a private university over a public one?
Cunningham: A lot of it is the model. Many times they’re working, trying to keep their 40-hour-a-week job, go to school and raise children. The working adult model of one or two nights a week fits their lifestyle.
Williamson: I think the private sector has realized we have five modalities of learning. We’ve taken technology a few steps further than public schools with online, live online and interactive forums. They have a lot of different options now that they didn’t have, even when I went to school.
Nnadi: Having worked in both the state institution and now working in a private non-profit institution, it takes a long time to make any change in a state institution. By the time you’ve finished with your internal process to get anything changed, then get to the system level and then the state level to get it changed, the private institutions have already graduated a group of students, on the same program that you’ve been trying so hard to change. The public sector is not equipped for quick change. They’re not equipped to take advantage of situations quickly. Privates are and that makes a big difference. Plus, we don’t have to depend on the legislature to raise tuition or increase fees.
Ball: Here’s one we get all the time. Construction worker gets laid-off; he’s got a family, three kids, the whole deal. We’ve got other jobs they can cross-train for. So they go to the public institution and are told, “Well, you’re too late for this quarter, come back in three months.” But, with a Block approach, they can go in, get that certificate and get back on the job. It’s a huge difference. I assume someday the public institutions are going to pick up on that. In a labor force like the one we have now, that is in dire need of cross-training and re-employment, the private sector is leaving us behind.
Yucha: UNLV doesn’t have a lot of certificate programs because we’re really degree focused. Certainly we have online education and technology and all of that now. That makes a big difference for students who are working. We get very young under-grads. If I look at the nursing ages across the state, the youngest students are at UNLV. They’re there for the typical, traditional school. There’s definitely a need for a lot of different models of education. That’s what the public and private do well.
Rob Dilman: Some students want to be able to progress in pieces. Whereas they can’t take a break for three or four years to get a degree, even though that might be their ultimate goal. If they can, they’ll take a program that’s nine months or a year long, get a certificate and get back on the job with the ability then, after another couple years, to come back and finish an associate’s [degree]. After a couple of years, if they could see some career progression, there are types of educational programs that lead to careers that are in demand that you can take one bite at a time as your career grows. That’s attractive in this economy.
Will online education ever grow to the point where there won’t be classrooms?
Dilman: I think the online portion is needed because of what’s been addressed; an individual can’t just stop what they’re doing and go to school for four years. You have to have some convenience with a non-traditional model that we’ve been talking about. Education will always be more than just the theoretical. You’re going to have to have the ability to learn skills and some skills you can’t learn through an online course all the time. Nursing is a good example. You still have to come to the skills lab on campus to work with the simulators and mannequins. I don’t know how you could ever take that away and expect someone to be skilled enough to work in a hospital just because they took courses online. I think there will always be the need for, not just face-to-face instruction, but the skills to go along with it.
Yucha: Even though some of our programs are online, we still have face-to-face time with these students. We could do it from home, via Skype or whatever. We run the risk of losing a culture. When the faculty is there, when they’re in faculty meetings, face-to-face, it’s a different conversation than would occur if we were all on a phone conversation together.
Williamson: When we went to college, it was a combination of both. Now you get one divide where they’d rather just sit there in their own room and socialize online than get face-to-face time. That’s going to come back to affect them when they ultimately go out to get a job.
Dilman: Online has its place for convenience and delivery, but it can’t replace skills that you need to get as part of your education.
Nnadi: Also, online really is not for everybody. There are students who fail miserably online. But, they do very well face-to-face. There is still something about that human contact and looking at a student and seeing that they are lost and trying to put them back in the classroom. Plus, to excel in an online program, you have to be self-motivated. You cannot be a procrastinator and you must have good writing skills. I don’t think the brick and mortar is just going to evaporate. But, we are going to see more and more online.
Cunningham: We tell the students that if they are not disciplined, online is probably not for them. If you have a class you go to four hours a week, you know that’s going to be your time you’ve got to be in class. Otherwise, you have 24 hours a day, seven days a week that people could be posting and you need to respond to things. You need to have your papers turned in to drop boxes by certain times. It’s very rigorous. A lot of students underestimate how rigorous online is.
Ball: I think that if you had this same discussion and the average age in the room was 19 to 24, you’d get a totally different answer. They would tell you, “you can keep building that brick and mortar if you want’ we’re going the other way.” We see all the sociological manifestations of how that creates a different culture and a different set of communication skills than we’re familiar with. We say, “How are you going to operate in the world when your skills are built around that?” They’re going to tell you, “We’re not interested in operating in your world. We have a new world. We all operate just fine online.” You see a generational shift here where, if you ask the same question a few years down the road, it’s totally different.
Dilman: Even if the rising generation is comfortable with the technology, I don’t think it’s realistic for us to expect that a newly graduated high school senior at 18 will have the maturity and discipline it takes to succeed in an online environment.
Ball: They’re already doing that. They accept all the same challenges of discipline and productivity we do. They just do it in a different method. They’re going to shift the market demand dramatically for how we offer our stuff.
Dilman: We’ll have to adjust.
Dilman: As much as the tools may improve and technology may change, I hope we don’t ever take shortcuts in developing skills. There will always be a need to problem-solve, formulate ideas and carry that idea to an objective fruition. That ability to formulate thoughts are skills that I don’t think should ever go away, regardless of what technology we use to teach them.
What role does education play in economic diversification and Nevada’s culture?
Ball: If we’re going to be competitive at all, we’re beginning to realize that the model that got us to 2007 is not going to successfully get us to 2027. The other part is the quality of life that surrounds us. As people increase their skills and their ability to be competitive in a global economy, they start looking for the quality of life in the community. If you look at all the places in the country right now that are succeeding, in spite of the economy, that focus on education is a key part of it.
Yucha: We really need to be preparing lifelong learners. If a kid isn’t ready to learn when they’re 17, can we have done something that will help that child know what they have to do when they get to be 25 and realize they made a mistake? I think this whole lifelong learning thing is critical. Unless they’re prepared to continue learning, we haven’t done our jobs at all.
Williamson: That’s simple self-improvement. We all have to do it every day in our jobs. You have to stay on top of it.
Ball: I think a lot of business leaders have recognized that their future work force is sitting in educational institutions right now. All the ways that they can reach out and, not just be involved as community members, but business people who want to cross-fertilize ideas with the educational establishment so that education is relevant and they can give the future generations of their work force a glimpse and acquaintance with what the world of work is all about. Progressive companies are doing that all over the country; job shadows, internships and work experience programs.