Monday, April 9, 2012

The 800 Pound Gorilla in the Classroom

Last week, former Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) Chancellor Jim Rogers called out the 800 pound gorilla that always seems to be in the room when critical higher ed budgets are decided. Last Wednesday, Rogers pointed out what should be glaring inequities.

When UNLV was growing from 20,856 students to 28,317 students in about a decade (1998-2008), instead of building UNLV's infrastructure at twice the rate as UNR's to make up for some of this inequity, UNR received roughly 800k gross square feet of new state funded space while UNLV received approximately the same. The other new buildings UNLV acquired during that period were paid for with institution-based funding, some generated by student fees. Even when the state came up with funding, UNLV provided much more in matching funds than UNR did. For example, 40% of the cost of the Greenspun building at UNLV was donated by the Greenspun family to the tune of $37 million. UNR committed nothing like this amount in either private or institutional funds.

Honestly, I've never been a fan of privatizing public education, so I'm not advocating forcing UNR to rely on more private funds. However, I have wondered why "the political and educational powers that be" in this state have forced UNLV to do this. Thankfully, Rogers and I no longer look to be alone. The Sun penned this editorial yesterday that really highlighted what's at stake.

The current funding formula was created by the Legislature under the leadership of the late Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, who was masterful at shuttling resources to Northern Nevada. And, as a result, Southern Nevada schools have been short-changed by a formula weighted to the north.

That can’t continue. UNLV has grown significantly, yet the state funding hasn’t kept pace because of the formula. The state has to address the needs of Southern Nevada’s schools, especially considering their vital role in educating the state’s workforce. The bulk of the students in Nevada’s colleges and universities resides in Clark County, so under-funding the schools here is unfair and makes no sense. That’s especially true considering the role higher education can play in the economy.

A study of the Intermountain West has shown that regions with higher education levels have fared better than others during the nation’s economic doldrums. As we have said before, colleges and universities can help drive an economy, but they have to be given the chance.

The funding formula by itself isn’t the answer. Lawmakers should consider the overall funding of higher education. Klaich has made a point of keeping the discussion about the funding formula separate from that discussion. He told the Sun that he didn’t want it to look like he was using the funding formula to try to get more money out of the state. That’s fair, and lawmakers shouldn’t confuse the two. Nor should they think that by fixing the funding formula, the problem will be solved. No matter how perfect the funding formula is, it won’t matter if the Legislature doesn’t fund it sufficiently.

Of course, this isn’t a matter of simply throwing money at the problem. Any spending has to be strategic and directed toward meeting the state’s goals, and there has to be results. However, at the same point, the state’s spending on education simply hasn’t been adequate.

Certainly, the late Bill Raggio left behind a legacy of reaching across the aisle to find reasonable budget solutions and continuing investment in higher education. However we can't ignore the entirety of his legacy, which also included "finding" additional funding for Northern Nevada colleges no matter the situation. During the "good times", UNR was receiving the same amount of construction funding as UNLV despite UNLV desperately needing more capacity for its expanding student population. And during the hard times, Great Basin College hasn't had to experience the kinds of fears (of losing classes, faculty, and so much more) that Nevada State College and the CSN system have had to face.

Again, I do NOT want to see UNR or Great Basin or any other Northern Nevada college cut down to Southern Nevada colleges' present level. All that would do is ruin what's left of higher education for the entire state. UNR has certainly played a valuable role in diversifying the Reno area economy. We need to see more of that, NOT the emerging threat of essentially selling parts of UNR and/or UNLV to the Koch empire so they can turn our schools into their "tea party" ideological training grounds.

Instead, I would love to see UNLV, Nevada State, and the CSN system brought up to the level of funding, and essentially the level of respect, that Northern Nevada colleges now enjoy. Back in January, Dr. Robert Lang from UNLV Brookings Mountain West took to KNPR's "State of Nevada" to explain how Southern Nevada has suffered due to the lack of proper investment in our public infrastructure. While the likes of UNR and Western Nevada College have played a vital role in diversifying Northern Nevada's economy, Southern Nevada has remained captive to the whims of tourists and real estate speculators because we don't have enough classrooms for Clark County students and enough opportunities for Clark County's diverse communities. As we've discussed many times before, our economy will never really be sustainable if we keep unrealistic expectations of surviving on "exotic" stripping, bar tending, and valet parking alone.

So it's long past due for NSHE to finally do something about the longstanding inequities in the higher education funding formula. Again, hardly anyone wants to see Northern Nevada suffer from cruel cuts. However, we need to stop asking Southern Nevada colleges to suffer the worst of budget cuts while being spared the best of growth opportunities. It's time to start properly investing in Southern Nevada's future for a change. We will soon have over two million people here in Clark County, so it's time for our burgeoning metropolis to finally get the respect we deserve.

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