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Lawmakers must invest in success

After three years of cutting budgets, Nevada is facing the largest deficit in our history and we are talking about major cuts again. At the same time, state leadership has recognized the need to diversify our economy, the need for a better educated population, the need for better health services, and the necessity of creating stable revenue flows to support these goals and attract new businesses to our state.

As a Nevadan I support these goals, and as president of UNLV I know that higher education is crucial to achieve them.

Many of the states around us had the foresight to make long range strategic decisions to invest in higher education, research and development and their future, while we struggled to keep pace with growth. We are near the bottom of almost every list in education and health care and we have one of the least diversified economies in the country, particularly here in Las Vegas. It’s time to decide if we are going to talk or act.

If we continue cutting higher education we will weaken our ability to attract businesses and develop a strong economy, and reverse the progress we have made in recent years. Consider that even now UNLV graduates more than 6,000 students a year; attracts students from around the world to our state; contributes more than $1 billion a year to our economy; provides resources, services and cultural enrichment to our community; and most importantly gives students who are willing to work hard a chance to achieve their career dreams. As the legislative session begins, our plan is straight forward, modeled after the successes we have seen here and in neighboring states in the intermountain west.

– Invest in bachelor’s and advanced degree production — Increasing the number of BA and advanced degrees is crucial for our economic future and success. In 2009, we ranked 46th in college degrees per capita (29.4 percent); far less than Arizona, California and Utah. In Las Vegas only about 20 percent of our population have college degrees (the second lowest of any major U.S. urban area). Bachelor’s and advanced degree production go hand in hand with business relocations, higher wages and lower unemployment. In fact, we recently lost IKEA and Earthlink because of the low percentage of college graduates here in Las Vegas. Regions with high percentages of college graduates weather economic fluctuations better and have recovered faster from this recession. If we are going to become a better educated state, attract knowledge-based industries and build the work force of the future, we need to stop cutting our four-year and graduate institutions and invest in them to produce more degrees.

– Self help and greater autonomy — With 28,000 students from 50 states and 77 countries, UNLV is a global university and has more nonresidential students than any other institution in our state. Our nonresidential students contribute $240 million a year to the Las Vegas economy and bring needed skills to our region, but the state takes all of our nonresidential tuition and redistributes it through the funding formula, providing a potent disincentive to bringing talented students to the state and thereby expanding our regional economy. Further, there is no guarantee that increases in fees for in-state students will be returned to the campus to enhance their education under the current funding system. We ask our elected leaders to restructure funding to higher education. Allow us to keep all our tuition and fees on campus so that we can reinvest them in our students’ education, and restructure our formula funding system to incentivize production of high-value degrees. Right now many of these degrees (for example, nursing, accounting and engineering) cost more than the state provides, thus limiting our ability to provide the region with the professionals we need.

– Targeted investments in research and development at our research universities can yield big dividends — With the highest unemployment rate in the country and diminished revenue streams from our dominant industry, our state must act to create jobs and diversify our economy. Colorado and Utah are good examples of states that have turned that economic corner. By providing resources to attract high-tech industries, developing strong public/private partnerships and producing more bachelor, professional and advanced degrees, they have created jobs, attracted hundreds of high-tech businesses, and established a human capital and infrastructure base that will serve them for years to come. Their turnaround came through an extended period of targeted investments to build specific industries, featuring investments in higher education to bring R&D leadership and research teams, and a work force to support these new technologies. As a result, the University of Utah produced more patents than MIT this past year, and Salt Lake City has a booming high tech business base that is producing more than $10 billion a year in export economy. This is the right time for Nevada to make strategic investments in a diversified economy and higher education. UNLV will be a cooperative and resourceful partner and we will do everything we can to support the business community.

Anyone in business knows that you have to invest to get a return, yet in Nevada higher education has been cut, cut more and cut again. At UNLV we cut 27 percent from our base budget — that’s $50 million and more than 500 positions.

The cuts must stop. We can continue to cut and hope that gaming and construction come roaring back, or we can take advantage of this crisis and invest in our future by producing a degreed work force that will build and diversify our economy and develop the human capital and infrastructure we need to be globally competitive. The time for talking about our problems is over, and it is now time to act.

Despite the budget challenges we face, I bet on the pioneering spirit of Nevadans to create a brighter and more sustainable future, and I know that UNLV’s faculty and staff are dedicated to that vision.

Neal Smatresk is president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas

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