Group pushes for changes to new college aid program

A panel of lawmakers this week agreed to seek changes for Nevada’s new Silver State Opportunity Grant — the state’s first program offering financial aid based on need rather than academic achievement.

At the urging of community leaders, elected officials and college administrators, the group plans to pursue double the funding for the $5 million need-based grant during the upcoming legislative session. It will also ask the 2017 Legislature to loosen a rule requiring students to take 15 credits per semester to be eligible for aid, a change that would deal a victory to critics who argue that the requirement can overload nontraditional students.

“Our concern at (the College of Southern Nevada) is that 75 percent of our students attend part time,” school President Mike Richards told the panel of lawmakers. “They’ve got obligations other than jobs. They’ve got family responsibilities. They have other kinds of pressing priorities in their lives that these university criteria do not help with.”

Monday’s meeting downtown offices of the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, was led by a bipartisan group of local lawmakers that included Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz, Assemblyman Derek Armstrong and state Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas. It drew input to determine policy priorities for the state’s colleges and universities. The talk was part of a continuing series of free-flowing discussions meant to help craft a policy agenda for Southern Nevadans in the 2017 Legislature. Key areas of interest during the Southern Nevada Forum meetings have included changes in higher education, transportation and health care.

The Silver State Opportunity Grant has attracted strong support throughout Nevada since it was established through Senate Bill 227 during the 2015 Legislature. The grant, reserved for degree-seeking Nevadans enrolled in a community college or at Nevada State College, uses the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form to calculate the individual needs of recipients considering their incomes, their family’s incomes and any federal aid. State education officials granted 689 scholarships in August ranging from $200 to $5,000 for the ongoing academic year.

Some hope to make the program more accessible for students who can’t manage 15 credits per semester. The group, which met Monday, decided to seek a looser requirement that instead asks students to take 30 credits per year at their own pace.

“I want flexibility,” Diaz said. “You’re investing in those students that are very different and atypical of someone who comes from a family who already went to college.”

State Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Carson City, who co-sponsored SB 227, said he also plans to seek more funding for the grant when lawmakers convene next year. But it may be too soon to discuss changes to the policy, he said, noting that it may take another year to determine the program’s success.

“It’s a program in its first year, so I’m very hesitant to talk a lot about coming in and changing the fundamentals of it,” Kieckhefer said. “I want to make sure this is doing what it’s supposed to do, that it’s helping students graduate and helping students go and carry a heavier workload. Otherwise, it can just become another government program that we spend a lot of money on that we never get anything out of.”

Proponents of the 15-credit rule argue that the program’s political success hinges on the graduation rate of its recipients, and the requirement greatly boosts students’ chances of getting a diploma. According to research from the Nevada System of Higher Education, two-year college students in Nevada who take at least 15 credits their first semester have a graduation rate of 23 percent. The graduation rate for students who take fewer than 12 credits is only 3 percent. The rates are based on first-time, degree-seeking students in fall 2008.

Still, experts caution that policies encouraging 15-credit courseloads can have unintended consequences for working students. Tod Massa, policy research and data warehousing director for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, says that asking students to take 30 credits per year makes more sense because it makes them likely to graduate without overwhelming them.

“As a hard-and-fast rule, 15 credits a semester may not meet everybody’s needs,” Massa said. “We have to do policies that understand the reality of student needs.”

Contact Ana Ley at or 702-224-5512. Find her on Twitter @la__ley

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