A vibrant, diverse economy requires a trained, educated workforce. A trained, educated workforce capable of taking on the diverse needs of its community requires a system of education designed to meet the needs of individuals and institutions in that economy.
“We have to ensure that students who come out of college have good written and verbal skills and can work within teams to solve problems. There are fundamental skills that you can build within the curriculum in any academic program that are going to be things that will help students lifelong to adapt to rapidly changing workforce needs,” said Bart Patterson, president, Nevada State College (NSC).
“With regard to our universities, Nevada is doing very well,” said Rick Trachok, chair, Board of Regents, Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE). “Both universities (UNLV and UNR) were recently classified by the Carnegie [Classification for Community Engagement], as research universities with very high research activity. There are only 130 universities in the country that have this designation. [This] doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels, it just means we’re implementing policies that improve higher ed in the state.”
“We achieved the classification of very high research, which shows institutions are improving in terms of quality and volume of graduate school graduates and research expenditures,” said Marc Johnson, president, UNR. “It means both universities have true partnerships with many different facets of our communities. Which shows both these universities are serving not just students on campus, but the interests of the community as well.”
“UNLV is also becoming more entrepreneurial, with the university and the community working together in even more ways,” said Marta Meana, president, UNLV. “Through public-private partnerships, internships, cultural activities and capacity building.”
Keeping Pace With the Future
Educating students for careers that won’t exist for another five or 10 years isn’t new. It’s what education does. But today change is constant. Educators have to work fast to prepare the next generation of workforce for whatever jobs are coming, even if those jobs are, as yet, unimagined.
“I’ll say at the outset I wish we were doing even more,” said Patterson. Like any other business, the college needs to determine demand before offering services. Before creating programs for future careers, there needs to be students pursuing those programs.
“The thing we’ve done well is focusing on the key sectors of growth first, particularly in areas where there’s a significant shortage of credentialed individuals and areas where there maybe isn’t a program in place,” he added.
To meet such eventualities, NSC has grown its nursing program to the largest in Nevada, started a data sciences informatics program and developed a speech pathology program.
The college uses tools like Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance’s (LVGEA) Workforce Blueprint 2.0 which seeks solutions by combining K-12, government training programs, community colleges and four-year institutions.
It will take a combined effort to address future workforce needs, said Patterson. “The college is re-examining the core curriculum to make sure students are learning the fundamental skills they need to be successful in a rapidly changing workplace.”
UNR is adapting to models that support student learning. “Students will no longer sit still for long lectures,” said Johnson. “So over the last few years we have really been pushing experiential learning.”
One example is flip classes, where students do background work and assigned reading outside class. Classroom time is spent on hands-on learning, experimentation and discussion groups. “So they’re not just listening – and sleeping – in class. They’re putting their knowledge to work.” It builds confidence for students to know they can apply what they’ve learned.
The core curriculum has been revamped. UNR still provides a range of classes in arts, social sciences and humanities, but also delves deeper with communications skills and capstone classes, all writing intensive and experiential. Business students compete in business plan contests for actual prize money that can be used as startup capital for making those business plans a reality.
At UNLV the focus is on preparing today’s student for tomorrow’s workforce through research, education and community involvement. School of Medicine residents and fellows work in the community daily. The university has expanded its undergraduate nursing program, and developed a new occupational therapy program to help meet healthcare demands in southern Nevada.
Remediating Remedial Ed
Remediation has been a fact of higher education for years. Students arrive at colleges and universities without the skills they need in math and English, and require remedial classes to bring them up to speed.
“We’ve known for some time, and the Regents learned last year, that remedial education really doesn’t work,” said Johnson. So the Board of Regents adopted a policy being implemented in the fall of 2021 that no student can enter any form of remedial work unless they’re enrolled in a regular for-credit class on the subject.
It’s called corequisite. It means students needing remedial ed will take their first class in the subject, for credit, and get additional help during the semester.
“We’ve been doing the corequisite math and English the last four or five years and it works,” said Johnson. “We have the data to show that.”
In 2019 NSC signed an agreement with Clark County School District (CCSD) moving remedial education back to high school, while the college concentrates on corequisite education.
“Our data, before even implementing that particular model, is that at least 25 percent of the students can meet college level math, for example, if they use an EdReady course that we offer that’s basically a brush-up of their skills,’ said Patterson. “ I think the partnership with the school district and the supplemental instruction way we’re designing the courses should really, really help students to be successful.”
Pipeline for Success
K-12 education is the pipeline that provides students to higher education. Higher education is the pipeline that supplies the talented, educated, diverse workforce that attracts new industry.
“We’re not getting enough qualified [high school] graduates,” Trachok said. “Remediation rates in our colleges is high, about 70 percent of the students entering require remedial math and/or English.” With the changes the universities have made, which are reflected in admission requirements, those institutions aren’t facing the same amount of students needing remedial education, but for community colleges, there’s a need.
Charter schools can make a significant difference for workforce readiness “K-12 is the pipeline of students coming to our colleges and universities, and the more qualified they are, the greater likelihood they’ll be successful when they go on to either their university degrees or to obtain their certificates or degrees to get ready for the workforce,” said Trachok.
In Reno the K-8 Mater Academy of Northern Nevada is on a mission to make certain when students leave at the end of eighth grade, they leave with all the skills and strategies they need to pick whatever career they want.
“If it’s college, that’s a beautiful thing, and if it’s a trade, that’s a beautiful thing, and if they wanted to work at MacDonald’s that would be okay too as long as they have the skills and strategies to pick whatever they want,” said Gia Maraccini, principal.
Mater Academies (there’s also one in southern Nevada, and they replicate a Florida Mater Academy), work with diverse, at-risk student populations which often include English language learners. Most students are working two to three grade levels behind when they arrive. Like corequisite programs, Mater teaches grade level curriculum and spends part of each day customizing learning so students catch up to that grade level.
Mater is a Title 1 school, located in communities where it’s most needed, providing breakfast and lunch for students, and partnered with Boys & Girls Club with the two entities sharing space. Working together the school and the Boys & Girls Club provide a safe space until parents can pick up their students.
“Our mission is that we equip children with all the skills and strategies to be whatever they want in life,” said Maraccini. “I think that highly impacts our economy because we’re preparing students who are really able to be global citizens and enter the 21st century workforce in a very productive and positive way.”
In southern Nevada, Democracy Prep, a college prep charter school, focuses on providing rigorous academics so students seeking an Ivy League education are competitive enough to apply.
“Not every child goes to those schools, so we make sure they’re choosing the college that is right for them socially, academically and financially,” said Adam Johnson, executive director, Democracy Prep at Agassi Campus.
Many students graduating from Democracy Prep will be first generation in their families to graduate college. The charter school’s mission is to shift the expectations so those students who have grown up in low income communities have a chance to change the direction of their own lives, and the lives of their family.
As the economy continues to evolve into a more highly skilled and trained workforce, Adam Johnson believes sending students to liberal arts schools will prepare them to think critically and engage in discourse, making them valuable assets to their community when they return.
There are 75 charter schools in Nevada, and while enrollment varies, they’re generally smaller than traditional schools. The focus in Nevada’s charters includes everything from general education to Ivy League prep. The smaller student population makes one on one social interaction and academic instruction more productive.
Charter schools are formed by stakeholders in a community who believe in the philosophy and mission of a school. They’re public schools but with a specific focus, and their biggest impact on traditional education is to offer parents and children educational choices.
“They’re often much smaller than your district middle and high schools,” said Eve Breier-Ramos, president, Charter School Association of Nevada. That works well for students who need more one on one focus with their teachers and peers, social interactions and social skills. “Your average charter middle school will probably have about 200 to 300 students, as opposed to a district middle school that could have 1,200 to 1,500.”
Where Industry and Education Meet
One way to meet both education and workforce needs is dual enrollment which allows high school students to take college classes for credit, improving their education and reducing time between that education and entry into the workforce.
“Western Nevada has a very active dual enrollment program with our high schools and I think at our graduation in May we had about 120 students who graduated with an AA degree and a week later got their high school diploma,” said Trachok. “But that’s a pretty small number when looking at overall graduation numbers from our high schools.”
Outside the four year universities, the community colleges continue to work closely with major employers. For example, Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC) works with Tesla, creating training to meet their employee needs, and Great Basin Community College works with mining companies, according to Trachok.
Which doesn’t mean the universities don’t work with industry needs. Meeting workforce needs means meeting the needs of the economy and of education itself. “It’s important for us and for our universities to make sure they’re advancing research in all sectors so we’re creating the knowledge that will be the knowledge they need for tomorrow,” added Trachok.
It’s also important to meet industry needs with graduates who can support businesses coming to the state. When Tesla came to northern Nevada, UNR created a minor in autonomous systems. When Blockchains came in, the university worked with its computer science department to ensure students had the opportunity to use computer programming with that tech.
By the Numbers
Responding to the needs of new industries as they locate in the state means students are competitive in the local job market. As Nevada’s economy grows and diversifies, students are enrolling in higher education in increasing numbers. Over the last two years NSC became the second fastest growing college in the country.
“Our overall growth has been 30 percent, and it’s important to understand the shifting dynamics of student population,” said Patterson. The number of first time students between ages 17 and 24 has risen 39 percent. The population of non-traditional students over 25 rose 6 percent. “Our non-traditional students are still increasing, but the number of traditional students coming in shortly after high school is substantially up. Our overall student population has shifted so our most typical student is now a first time freshman going full time and that’s a dramatic change in four years.”
For the first time UNLV has topped 31,000 students, with increases in undergraduate, graduate and professional enrollment. The incoming undergraduate class had more than 4,400 students, retention of students to their second year was up to 79.4 percent, and minority enrollment was up 5 percent.
More students means the need for more space, for student housing and for academics. That means remodeling and construction. That means money.
Trying to keep pace with needs in both northern and southern Nevada, NSHE has been forced to go to a different model than what they’ve historically used in Nevada.
“We’re looking to private donors to help us build our buildings and in one case, Nevada State College, we were forced to build a building using student fees,” Trachok said. “That’s not the way to do it, but we had to do it because we needed the buildings. We’re being as creative as possible but there are challenges ahead.”
UNR has made a half-billion dollars’ worth of capital improvements since 2012, with only 15 percent coming from state funds. Working with student fees and private donors, the university has identified properties not in use that could be liquidated and the funds used for building projects. Four historic buildings on campus have been renovated, and two student service buildings built, including centers for veterans and another for first generation students where they can find social and academic support.
UNLV received $20 million from the 2019 Nevada Legislative Session to fund construction of a new academic research building, and the Board of Regents approved bonding for that building, which will serve the Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering. The School of Medicine received $155 million in commitments from a donor group to fund construction of a new medical education building. In January the first building at the UNLV Harry Reid Research & Technology Park opened in Las Vegas.
NSC remodeled the original building on its Henderson campus over the summer of 2019, adding offices and classroom space, then started construction on student housing for an additional 342 students. New construction commenced on a 67,000 square foot education building that received legislative funding and donor support, and NSC is partnering with College of Southern Nevada on a health sciences building.
“We look forward to continuing to improve what we do, our connection to the community and student success,” said Patterson. “Because at the end of the day, the hallmark of whether we’ve been successful is whether we graduate more students at a higher rate, and students who graduate have a quality degree and the skills they need to be successful in the workplace. If we can continue to improve that and accomplish that, then we’re doing the work that the taxpayers of Nevada have charged us with.”