It would be cynical to say that the future of education in Nevada hinges on money. After all, doesn’t just about everything?
Instead, education’s future across the Silver State will have more to do with utility: giving students better tools with which to achieve success, and the private sector, the trained and educated workforce, managers and entrepreneurs it will need to help overcome the resistance of these challenging economic times.
Easier said than done.
But it’s happening.
The future of education in Nevada will see an increased emphasis on partnering with the business community, a synergy that should help forge a more dynamic overall climate of prosperity for Nevadans for decades to come.
Kathy Gamboa, district vice president, North, University of Phoenix, says that the biggest thing she and her school are focusing on as far as the future of education is “working more directly with employers to match curriculum with careers and courses with job requirements for skills that have real-world application.” The goal is to take a chunk out of the state’s unemployment numbers. Nevada, she points out, “is not bouncing back as quickly as some of the other states around the country, although we are seeing some good movement.”
What Gamboa and her colleagues hear consistently from the Nevada employers with whom they come into contact with is a litany of the skills they are looking for, and the competencies they need, in order to be successful. “We have a pretty nice partnership with MGM, for example. That’s a result of the work we have done to assure that we can help them with their workforce, to make them better prepared to meet their business needs.”
Using the latest technologies and working in teams are at the forefront of priorities, she reports. “The team element at the University of Phoenix is a big part of what we do, because in the workplace you work in teams all the time; you have to know how to work together.” Critical thinking skills are also crucial, she adds. “Being able to take what you learned the night before from somebody who is actually in the profession doing it to work the next day and apply it is one of those tangible skills that employers are just crying for.”
“I’m very optimistic,” says Pedro Martinez, superintendent of schools for the Washoe County School District. “I see our state is in an upward trajectory. Graduation rates are rising. We’re doing some things here in Washoe County that I think are very innovative.” For instance, piloting a program to make sure 400 of the county’s 12th graders can take needed remediation courses before they leave high school for college. “We’re using the curriculum of the university and the community college. The university took the lead in math, the community college took the lead in English. We see this program scaling up to next year.”
At present, this program’s participation represents roughly 15% of graduates. Next year, Martinez envisions the program growing even larger. “We wanted to pilot it this year and get it done right. My goal is to eliminate remediation issues, so I see graduation rates rising. I see us tackling the issue of our children being better prepared coming out of our high schools to enter either secondary education or careers.”
Martinez is convinced that the steps being taken by educators are producing palpable results. “Frankly, I think that over time, as the data gets more up-to-date — the national data tends to be a year or two old – people in our state are going to see that graduation rates are rising. We’re not going to be ranked last the way we have in the past.” He is referring to the 2012 Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation released last summer that ranked Nevada dead last in education among the 50 states. Among the reasons for the miserable result: 44 percent of Nevada’s 2008-2009 high school students failed to graduate in four years, also the top percentage in the country.
Preparing for Impact
Much of what the future holds for education across the state hinges on the ongoing deliberations over the funding formula.
Bart Patterson, president of Nevada State College (NSC) in Henderson, perhaps not surprisingly, feels that the school has been “under-resourced in terms of funding. I really should say all of the institutions are not necessarily funded adequately, but under the funding formula, the state-supported portion of the operating budget would go up a significant percentage.” It will be utilized, he adds, primarily for additional student services to help retain and graduate students, “and to add additional faculty that are really needed, particularly in certain majors.”
The single greatest issue facing higher education, in Patterson’s opinion, is how best to incorporate “more e-learning, how to utilize more in the way of technology in the classroom.” His own institution is doing a good job of that, but students, he observes, “want more for less. They’re looking at being able to utilize credits from other institutions. They’re looking at as much convenience as possible in terms of core selection classes. We’re going to continue to try and meet that demand.” Patterson points out that his institution has continued to grow, and at the fastest rate in the state, something he predicts is going to continue throughout 2013.
Michael Richards, president of the College of Southern Nevada (CSN), says that he and his colleagues spent a lot of their time leading into this year preparing for the legislative session and working on a new formula for funding higher education. “We have spent several days in Carson City to share that formula with members of the legislature, and to see if we can’t get more equitable funding, particularly for this institution.” How have they fared? “It’s early, and this is something we have to continually work on through June. That sets the agenda and priorities, basically, for us for the next couple of years. We’re always hopeful. We are so optimistic here.”
What Richards and his people have done is to put in place a number of initiatives to create a positive impact on the community that it serves, as well as their students. One is the Achieving the Dream Initiative, a major national reform effort to improve the services schools render to students and to break down the barriers that prevent them from being successful.
“Those kinds of things have taken our attention,” says Richards. “We’ve involved our faculty and staff in an effort to provide almost a booster shot, if you will, to education in Nevada.”
Another program that CSN has put in place is a major involvement with local efforts to create a regional economic development initiative and plan. Richards’ staff has been working with residents “to let them know what we offer in terms of workforce development, in terms of customized training; efforts to put people back to work with the skills that they need to be successful.”
His goal is to add to his institution’s portfolio of partnerships with local industries, especially those highlighted in Governor Sandoval’s economic development plan. “A great example of this is the college’s partnership with the electronics-based defense contractor JT3,” he noted. “Students take six core courses in CSN’s electronics engineering program and then apply with the company. If hired, the student may be offered a bonus to help cover the costs of the courses they have already taken.”
“We are certainly pinched budget-wise,” declares Marc Johnson, president of the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). “We lost a third of our state funding over the last four years, but our growth in number of students has replaced a portion of that revenue.” The way administration handled the budget cutting was by identifying the programs that drew the most students and provided the most research. “We left those programs almost unfazed during the budget cutting, and we completely cut out other programs that did less research and drew fewer students.”
Much of what lies in store throughout 2013 and into 2014 depends on Carson City, Johnson emphasizes. “Our future is very reliant on what the legislature does with this new formula. With this budget, the governor asked higher education to put in a flat budget.”
The crucial part of the formula, he feels, is that while tuition and student registration fees used to be re-appropriated by the legislature, the new proposal calls for them to stay on the campus on which they are generated; the new formula only applies to the state funds. “Since we have been a growing institution and we are continually attracting students,, that means if we get to keep our tuition and fees we will have for the first time in four years an enrollment-sensitive revenue source,” Johnson notes. “Then, if we continue to grow our student body we will have the funds available to grow our faculty and student support personnel in order to continue to serve them well. So if this formula package goes through our future will be bright.”
The future will also see Johnson and his people working to forge more and stronger relations with the business and economic develop communities “to open the doors of the university to be partners with business. We are developing a well-educated, high-tech workforce to all the degrees. We’re opening up an innovation mentality to where we will be working more and more with business, bringing individuals from industry. That’s an exciting new venture for us.”
At a February 8 town hall meeting, Johnson outlined a variety of ways that UNR can tap new, less state-dependent revenue sources. “Our ‘new normal’ is going to require the effort of each and every one of us to achieve. This grand experiment of how this public university can become more entrepreneurial and rely more on our wits and creativity.”
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) has taken to the spirit of collaboration as well. This year the school formed a partnership with CSN to provide additional support to two-year CSN students as they move to the more traditional four-year degree program at UNLV. The school has taken on two full time transition advisors and maintains a permanent presence at the CSN Charleston campus through the partnership.
Additionally, UNLV is growing physically through partnerships with the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada to build a multi-modal transit center and Majestic Realty Co. to build UNLVNow, an events center and student village on the northwest part of the campus.
For the Fall 2012 semester, UNLV had just over 27,000 students with undergraduate students representing 82 percent. The school is funded primarily through tuition fees with 31 percent of total revenue coming from that source and 29 percent from state appropriations. The remaining funding comes from alternative sources including endowments and grants.
“I would say we’re moving forward, but we’ve just begun,” says Carolyn Edwards, president of the Clark County School District Board of School Trustees. “We have a long way to go. We’re at the bottom of a lot of lists. I think it’s critical to point out that we are at the bottom of the funding list, but we’re 36th in student achievement” according to Quality Counts, Education Week’s annual report on state-level efforts to improve public education. “We get the least amount of funding, and yet our students are still achieving. That’s not a bad thing, but we need to be better than that.”
To accomplish that, Edwards adds, the fifth-largest school district in the United States must continue to focus on improving instruction in the classroom, and raising the bar for students. “With the departure of [Superintendent] Dwight Jones (who had served the District since late 2010) it puts the path at risk. One of our jobs as trustees is going to be sure that whoever we bring in is going to continue this work.”
“There was a report from the College Board that just came out last week talking about the 2011/12 graduating class,” notes Martinez, “and the fact that we have more children in our state taking and passing the advanced placement classes. Nevada ranked 25 out of 50 states. In Washoe alone, we represented a quarter of the children, even though we’re only 15% of the children in the state, so we’re doing more than our fair share.”
After attending several of the budget sessions in Carson City, Martinez is convinced the money will be made available. “The economy is still fragile, and I know that; and our companies are still struggling, and our community is still struggling with home values. But I really believe we’re starting to make a turn for the best, and I think education is going to be a leader.”
“Certainly,” Gamboa concludes, “when we as a university think of our opportunities it’s really connecting what we can do for our employers to help meet those skill gaps, and to be able to apply it to the real world.”
And that is the future of education in Nevada.