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Kate Marshall & Elliott Parker: Balancing Nevada’s need for higher education

Kate Marshall & Elliott Parker
For the Nevada Appeal

Ever since the Morrill Act of 1862, Nevada’s public higher education system has been a balancing act between what is good for our students and what is good for our state.

Milt Glick, UNR’s late president, used to say the university not only helped its students to make a good living, it also helped them create a good life. We provide our students with vocational skills that help them get better jobs, but we balance this with the liberal arts and sciences to help them become better citizens and better understand our world.

Good students should have the opportunity for a first-rate education, but this has to be balanced against access. Higher education needs to be affordable to support the creation of a strong middle class. We did begin with good intentions, and state law even forbids charging tuition to in-state students. Over time, the Legislature and the Board of Regents have gotten around this by charging registration fees instead.

Governor Guinn’s Millennium Scholarship tried to balance these two targets. He sought to provide an opportunity for those students whose families could not afford to send them to college, if they were willing to work. But he also wanted to encourage families who were sending our best and brightest out of state to keep them here. A kid who leaves Las Vegas to study in Reno is more likely to remain a Nevadan than a kid who leaves the state.

A college education can be expensive, though it varies. Nationwide, annual tuition and fees for a full-time undergraduate averages $9,140 in public 4-year colleges, or $22,960 if you are out of state. Private colleges usually charge much more. Room and board can easily add another $10,000 per year. State support helps balance this by keeping student costs down.

How much does our state support public higher education? Last year, the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) was allocated a total of $488 million from the state’s general fund, 62 percent of its total state-supported operating budget.

If you include all of NSHE, the state spent $7,550 per student full-time equivalent (FTE). Before the Great Recession, the state spent $10,100 per student, so this support has fallen by 25 percent. Excluding the parts of NSHE that don’t educate undergraduates (such as the Desert Research Institute and the professional schools), the state spent an average of $5,800 per student FTE, slightly more for the universities and the small rural colleges, and less for the state college and the urban community colleges.

While the sticker price at UNR or UNLV is $6,255, not counting textbooks, lab fees, or room and board, costs at our other institutions are much less. On average, full time students within NSHE actually pay $3,970. While this is still a bargain, it has doubled from before the Great Recession.

Nevada still has one of the smallest higher education systems in the nation. Nevada is ranked 49th in the number of degree-granting institutions of any kind, per state resident. As a share of our labor force, Nevada has the fewest number of employees working in public higher education, even though we also have among the fewest private colleges.

We don’t do a good job providing educational opportunities for our kids. Most of our neighbors send substantially more kids to college. In student FTE per state resident, Arizona educates 2.5 times as many college students, Utah 1.7 times, California and New Mexico 1.6 times, Oregon 1.3 times, and Idaho 1.2 times. Only Alaska has a smaller share of residents who attend a degree-granting institution than Nevada.

Too few Nevadans go to college, and too few who leave the state ever come back. To keep our best students here, we need to provide them with universities they are proud to attend, but doing this raises the cost because it requires our universities balance teaching with research. Universities create knowledge as well as pass it on, and universities with good reputations for producing quality research attract both better faculty and better students. Some of that research will attract other types of external funding, and some will pay dividends in the forms of new patents and technologies.

But we must also balance the needs of our best and brightest with the needs of those who need a good education to improve their lot in life. Nevada needs both groups, if Nevada is to create a new economy. We need welders as well as engineers. We need associate degrees and certificates, not just bachelor degrees. We need a vibrant community college system, not just as preparation for the universities, but also for vocational education.

In the old Nevada, driven by casinos and construction, we did not need an educated workforce. However, the Great Recession taught us the states with the most educated workforce recovered the fastest, while Nevada remained in the economic doldrums much longer than the rest of the nation. In the new Nevada, we will have to do a better job creating a skilled workforce, not just hoping skilled workers will move here from elsewhere.

The current debates in Carson City deservedly focus on K-12 education, because we need to walk before we can run. We need to do a much better job getting more of our kids a decent education and a high school degree, and doing this will also make us more attractive for educated people who want to move here without giving up on a decent education for their kids. But we should not forget about higher education, to keep our best and brightest here and to create a stronger middle class by giving opportunities to young people who will work hard to overcome their parent’s lack of money. They need us and Nevada needs them.

Kate Marshall recently completed two terms as Nevada State Treasurer. Elliott Parker is professor of economics at the University of Nevada, Reno