Faced with a wealth of challenges, Nevada’s education system has some hurdles to overcome. However, industry leaders recognize the challenges they face and are working to improve the state’s rankings. Recently, those leaders met at the Las Vegas offices of City National Bank to discuss the needs of education.
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 relevant to their industries. Prior to the meeting, Brennan asked attendees, by a show of hands, who believed the Margin Tax was the solution for education funding. None raised their hand. Following is a condensed version of the roundtable discussion.
What is the greatest challenge facing Nevada’s education system?
John Wilcox: Funding is a big deal. It’s a major concern and there are a lot of things that need to be done.
Renee Coffman: Coming from the private side of this, it’s having Nevada understand there’s a space for private institutions in our state. As Nevada has matured, to have both private and public options available to students is a huge positive for the state.
Steve Werlein: The number one challenge I see facing education is choice, giving parents the options and realizing that not all students learn the same way.
Daniel Hamilton: The trick is to keep the momentum going in times of declining applications and declining enrollment.
Shelley Berkley: The biggest challenge I have is graduate medical education. Sixty-nine percent of physicians end up practicing medicine where they do their residency programs. We don’t have enough residency programs here in Nevada so we are educating a whole lot of future doctors to practice someplace else. With a 31 percent physician shortage in Nevada, lower than the national average, we’re going to need to work on that very seriously and very soon.
Bart Patterson: The retention and graduation of students [is a challenge], particularly the growing demographic of Latino students, which I believe is absolutely critical to the success of Nevada.
Steve Buuck: The thing we’re most concerned about is just that our K-12 kids are prepared to go into your institutions.
Marc Johnson: The number one issue is comprehensive growth of quality education opportunities at all levels. We have a great sense of competition in the state but we can’t afford the competition, because we need these quality opportunities everywhere.
Rick Martin: The biggest challenge is the state of the learner. We need to help these kids learn how to live and cope with the challenges that our culture is pushing on them.
Donald Snyder: The biggest challenge is both being able to do what we need to do today, but more importantly being able to do what we need to do tomorrow. Our greatest need and opportunity right now is to reflect on where we are and, more strategically, look at where we need to get and how we’re going to get there. Funding is a big part of it, but more than that is making sure we have the right people doing the right things, we’re structured the proper way and we’re focusing strategically.
What role does education play in the economy?
Berkley: We’ve been talking about diversifying the economy for as long as I can remember. This is the key to success. We improve the quality of our education, improve our education system, attract businesses to our community, diversify the community, diversify the economy and everything is good. We always talk about it more when things collapse, but when the economy gets better, we stop talking about it.
Wilcox: Timing is really important. When everything was going wonderfully, there wasn’t the sense of need. Today, as we’re starting to recover, the risk is things start going well again, we’ll forget the need. Today is the time that we’ve all got to work together and make sure that this is the time we don’t just talk about it.
Is a change in funding the solution?
Johnson: The funding mechanism has been a real question in this state for years. It’s always the time for investment. Education is an investment, not just a need.
Snyder: When Governor Guinn put together the blue ribbon tax panel, he came as close as we ever came to fundamentally looking at the structure of this state from a revenue point of view, then it never got closure. This governor has that opportunity to provide that type of leadership. He is a good governor. He’s well respected on both sides of the aisle and he understands the issues. We need good leadership and then we need for the rest of us to stand up and support real conversations. The Margin Tax Initiative will help encourage the right types of conversations to take place. It’s a better chance than we would have otherwise. That’s the best news I can think of when it comes to talking about the Margin Tax Initiative is it may get people around the table to really figure things out.
What types of students do we see today?
Coffman: It’s people choosing careers now and being much more thoughtful and young and middle-aged people going back to school. They’re really thinking about careers much more intensively. Those programs that are more focused towards a job and having a good job after you finish are very much in demand. Health professions, engineering, things like that are in demand. The higher education market has a different perspective. Typically, when the economy’s bad, the education market improves.
Snyder: Our new freshmen are taking an average of 14.6 hours this fall; last year that was 13.3. Our 6-year graduation rate is a ridiculously low 43 percent. We need to do things to encourage students to take the classes and graduate on time, and that’s a more efficient use of whatever dollars we have.
Hamilton: Legal education is undergoing a restructuring and that has led to a decline in applicants nationwide and in Nevada, maybe one-third over three years. We are in a relatively strong position as the only law school in the state whereas in California there are 21 accredited law schools. With that said, we have to go where the growth is. Just this year we created a Masters in Gaming Law, which is the first of its kind in the country. We’re trying to drive student demand.
Is remedial education still an issue?
Coffman: Even though we have strong enrollment, and we only admit students who have at least two years of college education, the biggest challenge is finding students of quality. Most of our students’ GPAs coming out of college programs are above 3.0, but we still have students who are not doing well. They have a fundamental lapse in their knowledge even though they’ve taken prerequisite courses like organic chemistry, calculus and so forth. This is not always from Nevada schools either. We’re finding a decline in quality from all the types of schools we recruit from, even very large prestigious schools in California.
Werlein: We looked at our incoming freshmen this year that came from outside Connections and one-third of them are already behind grade level, then you throw in Common Core, end-of-course exams, High School Proficiency Exam tests, etc. There’s so much emphasis on preparation and rigor, which is important, but that’s not enough time to remedy what these kids need. They need reading, problem solving and real basic skills.
Coffman: What you see a lot of times in higher education is the students want to be able to memorize and just regurgitate. In our professional programs they can’t do that. It’s problem solving, application and higher level orders of learning that they have to be involved in. The problem is they’ve been so conditioned to learn that way leading up to this point, it’s very difficult when they’re in our programs to undo that.
Johnson: There is progress. The state is getting rid of the proficiency exams. We’ve found the proficiency exams still only got the students far below the college entrance. It created the expectation that they were prepared when they came out of high school and they weren’t. Getting rid of the proficiency exam and getting the K-12 system to operate with the college system to get on the same pathway will address this issue.
Do K-12 and higher education Collaborate?
Johnson: In Washoe county, for the last several years, the superintendent of the schools, the community college president and the president of the university have been working together. We take our remedial education in math and writing and train the teachers in K-12. The students take the ACT in their junior year and they get placed into “pre-college math” and “pre-college English,” which is the same curriculum as our remedial math and English courses. We are delivering the curriculum and the teachers are teaching it, and that’s getting us on the same wavelength. When the students pass that math exam in high school, they’re on their way to the next college level class.
Snyder: We have what’s called Math Learning Center that works with K-12 to prepare the students for success. We also have a bridge program that allows students to take classes the summer before their freshman year to elevate and prepare them. We need to do more of those types of things. We’re doing a lot through our College of Education to connect more closely with the Clark County School District.
Is staffing an issue?
Patterson: Some of the staffing challenges that we have are in the technology fields from basic technologies like webmasters to other areas of programming. There’s just not enough in the valley. We also need more nurse educators with masters or doctorates who want to come back and teach.
Werlein: Teachers come up with really good technical knowledge, but dealing with the social and emotional problems, the classroom management and the levels of behaviors – they’re just not prepared for it. We have to spend a lot of our in-service time doing students-in-distress training, versus how to teach math.
Buuck: For me, not much has changed in the last 20 years as an administrator. It’s all in the STEM fields. We don’t have a long line of Calculus or AP Chemistry teachers. Those fields are still tough.
Patterson: We’ve had two straight years of over 20 percent increase of first-time freshmen. One of the things that is a big concern for us is a decline in students interested in being teachers.
Werlein: What we’re finding is that, while our salaries are usually competitive, a lot of teachers will choose to come to work for us because they can really focus on teaching and get back to the act of one-on-one with a student. They don’t have to deal with the huge class sizes or classroom management. Still, finding qualified teachers is one of the biggest challenges on the K-12 level.
What is education’s role in economic development?
Johnson: We need to have programs that are flexible enough to work with the industries that come. When we received the FAA designations as a drone-testing state, one of six in the country, our engineering college pulled out all the stops for a Minor in Unmanned Autonomous Systems. We put our Knowledge Fund program behind that and now we’re attracting drone companies from all over the world. If the educational institutions will work directly with the businesses we’re attracting, it really works to bring them in.
Patterson: It can be done. Studies show well over 60 percent of the jobs of the future will require degrees, then you look at the rankings, Nevada’s in the bottom five in terms of bachelor’s degrees per capita. With the right focus we can raise the overall attainment, but in the short run it’s focusing on the sectors and identifying how we can all work within the industry to bring more specific degrees that are needed right now.
What is the outlook of Nevada’s education system?
Johnson: We’ll make some progress this year. The governor and Kathleen Sandoval together are really working on early childhood education. Last session they worked on those who don’t have English as a first language. We’re making steps, but it’s still going to take an investment to make major progress.
Snyder: This time, I think the Margin Tax Initiative will be the catalyst for real conversations and we have good leadership from the Governor’s office. That’s a pretty good mix.
Patterson: In higher education, we’ve had significant tuition increases. Part of the bargain for those tuition increases was for our state to invest more in higher education. We need to have conversations about financial aid, increasing the Millennium Scholarship and need-based financial aid, which the state doesn’t have. There are a variety of strategies that can be deployed that aren’t necessarily so expensive, but need help to move in terms of policy and direction.
Berkley: The state of Nevada is only as good as the students we graduate.