The Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) is in the process of becoming a true system as Nevada’s educational climate shifts to meet the needs of Nevada citizens and businesses. Those needs are creating a change from individual institutions working alone to meet those needs to a system of institutions working together.
“There’s quite a bit that’s new in higher education,” said Marc Johnson, president of University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). “A couple years ago Governor Brian Sandoval said our higher education system needs to provide the kind of workforce necessary for new industries coming into the state.”
That by itself is a challenge. Added to that, according to Johnson, 60 percent of the new jobs will require some form of certificate or degree, but only about 26 percent of Nevadans between the ages of 25 and 34 have such certificates and degrees.
“Our chancellor is working with all [NSHE] presidents, really focused on adjusting the higher education system of Nevada to create more opportunities for people to get prepared for these new jobs,” said Johnson.
That’s a big goal.
An Educated Workforce
“The most dramatic change I’ve seen [in higher education in Nevada], and what I’m really excited about, is the Nevada System of Higher Education board and the chancellor are much more focused, as a system, in meeting workforce needs and doing planning that involves all the institutions on how those needs are going to be met,” said Bart Patterson, president, Nevada State College (NSC). “In the past it has been kind of one institution at a time. This is a much more coordinated approach.”
Meeting needs means training Nevada’s next workforce for the state’s next jobs. For NSC, that means looking at industries searching for trained, talented workers. Two critical workforce needs are health sciences and teacher training, both areas of concentration for NSC.
“We’ll start with the strategy involving all the institutions to meet those demands,” said Patterson of workforce needs. “From there the plan is to extend that out to everything from technical training programs to engineering to broader-based areas that are identified as key sectors for Nevada.”
Nevada’s economy is not the same economy it was before the economic downturn. With the new industries headed into the state, there’s a need for workforce training, and NSHE institutions are working together to provide that training. Educators are working with industries to customize existing programs and create new certificate and degree programs that specifically address the labor force needs of the new businesses.
“We have created some specialized minors in our College of Engineering in autonomous systems, cybersecurity, electrical and battery storage, and things of that nature. We can offer either retraining for existing engineers or new engineers going out with more specific training to local industry,” said Johnson.
NSC is building a new data sciences informatics degree and a minor program in software application development. The partnership program combines Panasonic, Tesla, College of Southern Nevada (CSN) and Clark County School District (CCSD). Panasonic, which provides the batteries for Tesla’s gigafactory in Northern Nevada, wants to recruit employees in-state. The company is working with CCSD and CSN to create advanced manufacturing courses. Students can kick off training that leads to stackable credentials, then move up north, work for Panasonic and continue their education at Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC), according to Margo Martin, acting president, CSN.
In addition to employee training programs, another draw for new businesses looking to start up or locate in Nevada is the ability to work with NSHE institutions. For example, there’s the Nevada Center for Applied Research at UNR, and the Biosciences Entrepreneurial Laboratory where the university has categorized its expensive analytical equipment which businesses can use for a fee. They can also engage the help of students and faculty, which can lead to internships and new jobs for students.
TMCC has long been involved in workforce training for new and existing businesses. The ability to quickly create programs for local businesses can sometimes lead to complications for the college. For example, recent discussions about state funding for summer students highlights problems with the state funding formula.
“I’ve been lucky that every state where I’ve worked in higher education we received state funding for summer sessions,” said Karin Hilgersom, president, TMCC.
However, Nevada doesn’t provide state funding for summer classes. “We just don’t run as many in summer as we’d like to,” she said. When we were asked to help Tesla and Panasonic train last summer, we were willing. We ran a number of advanced manufacturing courses and programs because we knew the gigafactory needed trained, talented workers. But, we did it at a cost to the college.” For students, however, the state was able to make programs essentially free.
Another positive impact on student finances: A scholarship designed to encourage graduating high school seniors who thought they couldn’t afford college. The Nevada Promise Scholarship helps students pay up to three years registration and mandatory fees, said Martin. Say a semester costs $1,500 and financial aid only covers $1,200, “Nevada Promise will pick up the remaining $300 no matter what gap between student financial aid or even if there isn’t any,” said Martin.
“In addition to academic programs we offer programs not for academic credit through our continuing education at UNLV,” said Diane Chase, provost, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “[The programs] could be for existing businesses to provide training, or they could be for new businesses coming onboard that have some existing training they need.”
UNLV is home to Nevada’s newest school of medicine, and also offers more than 700 degrees in 48 health related programs each year. Health related fields can include liberal arts (psychology programs) and education tracks (counseling degrees). Workforce training is evolving to keep up with the times.
“Today’s workforce training programs require high-level thinking, critical thinking and really do require skilled talent,” said Hilgersom. They are more traditional college courses and less just workplace training.
To an extent, training the future workforce means predicting which industries will come to and stay in Nevada and continue to grow, and what jobs might be phased out.
“One of the things we try to do at the university is help students with, what we call, transferable skills,” said Chase. Since the majority of workers hold a number of different jobs, UNLV prepares them with transferrable skills, teamwork and communications skills and the ability to work appropriately with technology.
Students need a base of critical thinking analytical skills, said Patterson. They need to know how to collaborate and work in interdisciplinary environments. “Those things are going to be important no matter what job there is. Also, they need to be able to adapt into new jobs,” he said.
Funding the Future
Meeting the Governor’s goal of workforce training is made more challenging by the fact that, despite rapid growth in Nevada’s population, the number of people graduating with high school degrees is slowing. That means the number of eligible students who can go into higher education is dropping and, because of the way funding is set up for institutions, growth of state funds for higher education will slow as well.
“With the funding formula, we rely on revenue from student registration fees. With a slowing in growth of the number of students, those independent fee revenues are also slowing,” said Johnson.
Lower revenues make it more difficult to bring in additional faculty, not just at UNR, but throughout NSHE. It also makes it harder for UNR to attain a lower student-to-faculty ratio which would allow students greater interaction with instructors and allow for more small group, hands-on learning.
Hands-on learning is important because it allows students to, “actually practice what they’re learning and gain confidence that they can indeed operate with the skills and knowledge they’re getting in their college years,” said Johnson.
That’s the number one funding problem for UNR. Following right behind, what to do with faculty and staff already hired. In the last few years, 235 positions have been added, and there’s a need for more space.
The school also has a goal to become a Carnegie R1 top ranked research university, which requires more and higher quality space for research and classroom labs and offices to accommodate growing faculty.
The university has funded most of their own facility renovation and since 2012 has invested more than $400 million in capital projects and new buildings.
“Only 16 percent of those expenditures have been reliant on state funds,” said Johnson. “We’ve been fairly creative with our financing strategies by using student fees and by liquidating assets that have lower impact for us so we can reallocate those resources to building renovations and new facilities.”
For other NSHE institutions, the funding formula fits better. Hilgersom said she arrived at the college at a time when there’s an influx of new dollars and publicly stated support for community colleges.
“There’s a recognition that we are training literally thousands of people statewide for the new jobs that have been successfully wooed to Nevada. Many of those jobs are in manufacturing, but many are in high tech startups. We’re exploring programs in quality assurance, smart cities and cybersecurity,” said Hilgersom.
Other new industry-focused degrees include TMCC’s applied bachelor’s degree in logistics operations management. “It’s the only four-year degree available in the region and, according to [The Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation], jobs and operations in logistics are predicted to grow from about 90,000 in 2016 to about 108 or 109,000 in 2024, “ said Hilgersom.
As new programs come in, old programs go out. CSN reviews programs yearly, making certain each meets the needs of students, business and industry. That means if the marketplace has changed and there really are no longer jobs in that area of study, or the jobs in that area have left Nevada (CSN serves local students), that program might be phased out. The goal at CSN is to train students for gainful employment in today’s industries.
“We have a plan in place for anybody who might be in those programs currently, so they can finish,” said Martin. Or students can change to another program. But the college won’t admit new students to a program slated to be discontinued because it no longer supports a viable industry.
But when one program closes, another program opens. CSN is expanding into environmental science because construction companies don’t have enough trained technicians who can do analysis of construction sites before building work begins. The college is creating an Associates of Science degree in environmental science management. A bachelors program will follow.
Before students can prepare for Nevada jobs there have to be Nevada students.
“It’s interesting, because often, in two year colleges, enrollment goes down when jobs placement goes up,” said Patterson. However, NSC has had a 72 percent increase in freshmen enrollment for the fall of 2017 and again this spring. Patterson expects the numbers to continue.
That helps with funding because the funding formula is roughly 60/40 or 65/35 in terms of state support versus tuition and fees, allocated through the state formula, said Patterson. “It’s based on student credit hours taught and, for the most part, completed, and weighted so lower division [courses] receive a set amount, upper division classes receive more, and graduate level courses even more per hour taught.”
Despite the slowing of high school graduates, university enrollment is up in both ends of the state. UNLV is at 30,000 students and increasing degree programs and non-degree curriculum to meet the needs of today’s students, Chase said.
The majority of students heading to NSHE institutions are from Nevada, which means most of them are coming out of Nevada’s K-12 system. The universities require a 3.0 grade point average for admission and the community colleges are open access to Nevada students. Both universities and colleges are seeing a need for remediation in both math and English for incoming students but, on the whole, the number of students needing a brush up on their skills is about the same as it is nationwide.
At UNR, the need for remedial math classes dropped from 20 percent in the fall of 2014 to 16.5 percent for incoming freshmen in the fall of 2017. During the same period, remedial English went from 10.5 percent to 8.5. Johnson indicated this is most likely due to school districts and community colleges focusing on preparing students for college-level work.
According to Hilgersom, remediation rates are a common statistic nationwide. “I’ve worked in Washington, Oregon, New York and Nevada and it’s typically about 50 percent of high school seniors that transition to a community college need remedial math. It’s not unusual in our country right now. There’s a gap and at least 50 percent of high school graduates aren’t ready for college.”
Most students just need to brush up on their skills, said Patterson; a summer online course might bridge the gap, preparing them for college. “It’s become apparent we need to work more closely with the school districts to understand what’s the issue. Why is there even a need for a brush up?” It could be that students are taking math and English too early in high school and end up going a couple years without classes in the subjects before graduation.
Something that might be even more of a concern: of advanced diploma earners in Nevada, those students who have taken college prep courses and should be ready, 38.9 percent require remedial math or writing, said Hilgersom.
The Department of Education has been looking at college-ready endorsement programs, but another solution is to perform remediation while students are still in high school, giving them basic college math and English through dual enrollment credit courses and high school programs at community colleges.
The opposite works too – community colleges are starting to teach courses at high schools so juniors and seniors can get basic courses done by the time they graduate high school.
“Nevada System of Higher Education has been very responsive since the recession,” said Johnson. “We have a role in the development of intellectual properties and research. We have a role in reaching out to industry. We have a role in workforce preparation and all of our institutions have been responsive to the industries coming to Nevada. Higher education has made itself part of the economic development solution for all of Nevada.”