With cuts at $85 million, higher ed sweating the small stuff

Back when it looked like the state's higher education system would come up $162 million short because of budget cuts, plans were set in motion to save money.

Hundreds of jobs would go. Thousands of students would be shut out when their programs and classes were given the ax. Tuition and fees would rise dramatically.

There would be smaller savings, too. Eighty thousand dollars in awards money here, a million dollars in tuition discounts there. Regent Kevin Page has gone on mini-rants about these sorts of things at recent meetings of the higher ed system's governing Board of Regents. "The little things add up," he said. "It is real money."

The state budget cuts won't be as bad as everyone thought they would be, though. They'll be about half, $85 million. That's a 15 percent cut in state support, which is manageable. The board will hear from the colleges and universities at a meeting next week about those cuts.

Overall, not as many jobs will go. Not as many programs. Not as many students. Not as large a tuition and fee hike.

But the little things? They're still on the chopping block. The meeting is set for Thursday and Friday on the University of Nevada, Reno, campus.

"We promised to review all of our policies and procedures, and where they are no longer appropriate, we will change them," Chancellor Dan Klaich said. "We are no longer in a time where we can afford discounted tuition, so it goes."

He's talking about discounts for senior citizens, native speakers of foreign languages and high school graduates from states that border Nevada.

Traditionally, the so-called "good neighbors" have been given discounts under the philosophy that the colleges and universities needed a recruiting tool to lure them away from their home states.

Systemwide, about 900 students use the program to attend colleges and universities here. In theory, eliminating the discount could bring in an extra $6.5 million. But it probably won't save that much because, it is assumed, many of the students who would have come to Nevada under the discount program won't come once it's eliminated.

The foreign language speakers provision is not in use, so that's easy to eliminate.

The senior citizen discount allows anyone 62 or older to take classes at the colleges and universities for free, so long as there is room in the class.

"That's great when times are good, but right now we can't do that," said Page, who co-chairs a regents committee on improving efficiency in the system.

Eliminating the seniors discount -- again, assuming all the seniors who take classes keep doing so -- could bring in an extra $1.1 million.

The board is set to eliminate all three discounts at its meeting next week.

Regents also are poised to eliminate the funding for the Board's Regents Awards, which honor outstanding students, faculty and staff. There is a cash award included of $5,000.

Eliminating the cash award will save $80,000.

Klaich said that while these moves won't make a large dent in the $85 million hole, they do matter.

Also expected to come up at next week's meeting is a proposal to limit the number of credits required for most four-year degrees to 120 credits.

Klaich said the proposal will combat what he calls "credit creep," where a course is added here and another course there. The universities end up with degrees that require so many credits, students take too long to get their degrees.

That costs the students and the system money. Limiting the number of credits should, over time, keep costs down, Klaich said.

There will be much more in the coming months as the efficiency committee comes up with its findings, he said.

Page cited a few examples of simple changes that could save money, such as purchasing copy paper as an entire system rather than each institution doing it alone. Or entering cellphone contracts systemwide, too. Eliminating advertising at a time when there isn't room for more students anyway. Revamping the way the system handles remedial education could save money, too.

"We have to change the philosophy," Page said. "When you get fat and happy, you know, you end up doing things in ways that maybe you shouldn't."

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307.