“A lot of [the new economy] is going to be STEM-related, science, technology, engineering, math, this deep interdisciplinary approach that will allow us to be better positioned for jobs in the future,” said Dr. DeRionne Pollard, president, Nevada State College (NSC).
Technology is changing every experience and every economy around the world. Data analytics inform every business decision and colleges like NSC are launching programs directed at understanding how that data is used.
Education drives the economy – training the workforce and creating the jobs the workforce fills.
Funding the Education
Clark County School District (CCSD) per pupil funding is $7,264. Washoe’s is $7,222 FY22 with a slight increase to $7,318 in FY23. Is it enough?
“That’s a loaded question,” said Dr. Kristen McNeill, superintendent, Washoe County School District (WCSD). “The entire per pupil funding formula switched. We used to have the Nevada Plan and switched coming into this year. Now the commission on per pupil funding is working on that exact question. What is adequate funding for K-12 education and what is optimal funding for education across the state of Nevada?”
For McNeill, optimal would include fully funded class size reductions, fully funded pre-K education, the ability to offer world languages and increase the number of bilingual high school graduates, and the ability to offer more arts.
Last year, Nevada’s Legislature passed Assembly Bill 495, a bipartisan compromise to create a new excise tax on gold and silver mining companies. The bill also reroutes the state general fund’s portion of the mining industries’ minerals tax. Both the new tax and the rerouted tax funnel directly to the state education fund, beginning next year. The combination of the two are expected to be about $150 million per year. The increase should help fill some funding gaps.
“There’s a lot we could do with optimal funding. There have been studies done in the state of Nevada and it’s upwards of a billion dollars in additional funding that would be needed,” McNeill said.
In addition to the mining tax passed last year, primary and secondary schools in Nevada received Federal money due to the hardships from the pandemic.
“The $1.2 billion we received from Congress, that money is to get through the pandemic,” said Dr. Jesus Jara, superintendent, CCSD. “Our state is using it all accordingly, to get the PPE’s and really get us through opening school and as we move forward.” The district has submitted a four-year plan for the funds, looking at what’s needed as students return to face-to-face education. One use already approved is recruitment and retention of staff, to the tune of $66 million.
“We were awarded almost $10 million, $9.9 million for ESSER 1,” said McNeill. The American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding – ESSER – awarded the district three allocations of $9.9 million, $34.3 million, and a final allocation of $77 million.
“We’re very cognizant of what’s being called the funding cliff,” said McNeill, referring to the end of funding happening FY24.
Funding hasn’t regained pre-COVID levels, said Dr. Karin Hilgersom, president, Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC). It’s a simple formula. Take the state budget and divide it by total full-time equivalent students. This year, it comes out to $4,800 per student spending. “That’s from the state side, so that’s the state spending and doesn’t include tuition. I think we could do better.”
TMCC offers health career programs, which are expensive to run, and other TMCC programs subsidize some of those programs. That’s not a sustainable model, Hilgersom said. She anticipates discussion on the topic during the 2023 Legislative session.
As a community college, funding for College of Southern Nevada (CSN) is primarily composed of student tuition fees and a state appropriation tied to enrollment numbers. A pandemic-related 12 percent dip in enrollment means CSN’s funding is down approximately 12 percent, as well.
The CARES Act provided emergency funding for higher education as well as K-12. Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund monies, or HEERF, provided CSN with $62 million. Another $44 million went directly into the hands of students.
“The intent behind the federal stimulus was to get money into the hands of students, and they could use it as appropriate, including for additional costs,” said Dr. Federico Zaragoza, president, CSN.
Both amounts were critical in helping colleges retain students; without them the national decline in enrollment might have been higher than 10 percent.
Nevada colleges used relief funds to navigate needs during the pandemic. CSN built up its IT infrastructure, including providing free laptops for students and hotspots to use them if they didn’t have Wi-Fi at home.
“We were able to use those federal funds to create the infrastructure to offset the losses and be able to create support systems needed to help students,” said Zaragoza. But HEERF funding was a onetime appropriation. If the next funding cycle finds enrollment still down 12 percent, funding will be down 12 percent, with no HEERF monies to offset costs.
“Thanks to the influx of federal funding, we were able to sustain ourselves and our infrastructures during this period. Moving forward there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Zaragoza said. Funding will depend on the level at which students return to higher education institutions.
The funding formula for higher education in Nevada is based on what the institution has done. “You see additional funding based on results and efforts that the college may have put in place, not that you receive funding in order to do things,” said Pollard. “We are a teaching institution, so we put our bread and butter on the line by making sure that we are demonstrating the outcomes and also growing. Any additional resources that come to us are as a result of our demonstrated ability to do the work.”
Funding the Economy
“We commissioned a report last year on our economic impact, and we generate as an institution $124.4 million in total economic activity in 2021, and in addition to that, 952 total jobs that we have in our community,” said Pollard.
Data suggests that, on average, when a student completes a baccalaureate degree, they earn about $20,000 a year more than they would if they had only completed high school. “That’s a step out of poverty for a lot of families that might allow them to put their child in college, and it might also provide a significant stability for that family,” said Pollard.
“I firmly believe in the K-12 school system. We are the economic engine of this community,” said Jara. A good school system is a draw for businesses looking to locate in the state. It’s also the basis of the workforce employers draw from. “K-12 plays a big key in our economic development.”
A pilot program in 17 CCSD schools is meant to prepare students to graduate directly into the workforce. “We have a partnership with MGM where my kids can get jobs at MGM while they’re still in high school and get high school credits. Then, as employees of MGM, they’ll also be getting a college education,” said Jara. The program helps students, their families and the economy.
CCSD is also launching career and technical education programs (CTE) for diesel mechanics, automation and entrepreneurship, accelerated pathways so students graduating from those programs can enter the workforce directly.
“We talk about workforce development and making certain our employers have a sufficient pool of highly qualified candidates to hire from. That’s why [we do] workforce development, from college to career, we want to offer as many options [to students] as possible,” said McNeill. Whether students want to move directly into the workforce, join the military, or head to higher education after high school, school districts help them prepare. Each choice has an impact on the local economy.
Periodically TMCC works with Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) to create an economic analysis of the impact of TMCC alumni who remain in Washoe County after training at the college.
“Last time we did this was 2018,” said Hilgersom. “Increased earnings for TMCC alumni was $393 million annually. When you look at the students that graduate who weren’t even in the job market and now they have good, middle-skilled, living wage jobs, it’s an enormous economic impact.”
“The higher education system is really the engine of economic growth,” said Zaragoza. “It provides the workforce; it provides the knowledge you need to grow and diversify the economy and sustain the quality of life in the state.”
Higher education isn’t the best choice for every student. For others, accelerated access to college level education is the best choice. Dual enrollment – earning college credit and possibly graduating high school with an associate degree – has been an option for students for years.
Graduating high school with an associates degree can launch a student into a job with better wages, or move faster through higher education. Statewide, students are taking advantage of the opportunity. CSN’s dual enrollment numbers went from 1,800 in 2016 to 5,100 students in 2022.
NSC had 17 students in its program the first year (2017) and 223 in the fall of 2021. TMCC has increased its program 500 percent in the last five years. In the fall of 2021, it served 1,224 students, and that’s a dip from pre-pandemic numbers.
“The State Board of Education and NSHE just approved more of a systemized way to deliver dual credits so it’s not one district one way and one another, UNR can’t charge one price and TMCC charge another – it’s the same price for everybody,” said McNeill.
Another option for students is career and technical education. Each comprehensive high school in WCSD offers a signature academy program, specialized career and technical pathways. “Depending on which high school you go to, you can go into Health and Human Services, Biomedical, Education, Sports Medicine, Early Childhood, Mechanical Engineering, STEM or World Languages,” McNeill said.
It’s difficult to track the number of students who graduate high school and head into higher education. For CCSD the number was 27 percent. “What we’re focusing on, especially in this community, is the kids that can go right into the workforce. Our work and our efforts is really around career technical education, so our kids are earning high paying jobs,” said Jara.
“College of Southern Nevada high school, where kids are at CSN and also in high school, can earn them college credit. Then there also are a small number of students at UNLV,” said Jara. “What I’m really excited about is the work that we are doing with UNR. We’re expanding our partnership where my kids don’t have to go to Reno when they graduate, but will have college credits they can take on at no cost to the family and they can get college credit,” said Jara. Virtual attendance means students can attend University of Nevada, Reno, while remaining in Southern Nevada. In the first semester of the program more than 700 students took classes at UNR while physically on CCSD high school campuses. CCSD will add four more high schools to the program in the next year.
Community colleges are open entry; students wanting to attend don’t need a certain GPA. Which can mean that not every student starting at a community college is college ready. In the past, colleges tested incoming students in math and English and, if necessary, placed them in remedial classes prior to college level classes.
“The need for remediation remains constant,” said Zaragoza. “The most recent data shows about 70 percent of incoming, first time college students are testing below college readiness standards. That’s been pretty consistent over the years. There hasn’t been a change in the need to remediate. What has changed is the way we remediate.”
The NSHE Board of Regents now re – quires co-requisite remedial education rather than standalone remedial classes, unless those classes are free. So, colleges are now linking remedial learning with college level learning and providing tutoring and support services to those students. The change has helped institutions retain students as they pass one class rather than face failing classes when taking sequential remedial classes.
“We were losing way too many students nationally with the sequential model,” said Zaragoza. “Now with the co-requisite model if students are not college ready, they still get involved in the course, but now a co-requisite integration of the academic support function, so they’re getting the contextual assistance they need in order to succeed. “
There hasn’t been additional funding for institutions related to remedial learning. But, when students pass one co-requisite class rather than failing in sequential classes, they’re more likely to stay in school, which adds their tuition dollars to institutional funding. States that have adopted a co-requisite model are making progress with remedial education.
Bright Spots and Virtual Worlds
Higher education went virtual with the onset of COVID. The need to teach students remotely led to professional development for faculty centered around online learning and tutoring. Surveys revealed traditional students were anxious to return to in person learning, but more mature students liked the flexibility of online.
“We’re actually seeing higher online student demand than we did before the COVID period,” said Zaragoza. “Currently we are about 40 percent online and 60 percent in person and hybrid. That 40 percent compares to 30 percent before COVID in terms of online students. So we’re seeing students coming back, but a higher percentage of students are adopting and preferring the online modality. Our goal is to align the modality or methodology to what students prefer, where they’re more comfortable in terms of learning.”
TMCC has embraced technology to immerse students in their chosen careers. Virtual reality glasses allow students to get the feel of working in their chosen industries. The company developing curriculum recruitment tools that use the glasses creates experiences in fields that aren’t getting a lot of interest because students don’t have a good understanding of what those fields involve.
TMCC invested in an AI program that can answer student questions and help them become clearer thinkers and writers. “It helps them become better students in general, because criticism is delivered by robot, so it doesn’t feel quite as personal as if a person was providing it,” said Hilgersom. “It’s constructive criticism that says, ‘Here’s how you can do it better, and here’s an example.’”
With technological advances happening so fast, education institutions need to respond with equal speed, because the tech corporations themselves don’t have to worry about getting funding. They can automatically move fast and provide high tech options that augment learning. No educational institution wants to lose students to training by big tech companies that can provide AI, virtual reality, robots and other up-to-the-minute tech.
“I’m excited about some of the effects we’re going to have post-COVID from changes we made during the COVID period as related to some of the online and virtual systems we have that we did not have before,” said Zaragoza. “That includes a lot more integration of technology both in terms of software support, integrated learning systems, more computer-based simulations, all of which are tremendous tools for learning.”