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Nevada State College braces for budget cuts or worse

Supporters of the fledgling Nevada State College are running scared, trying to deflect rumors the college might be closed to help balance the higher education budget. The state’s only four-year college is feeling like an unwanted stepchild hoping for a fairy godmother.

Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Klaich mentioned closing it as a possibility in his litany of cuts. Then Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Geoff Schumacher wrote the college’s “contribution to the state system is negligible” and snubbed it as the “least vital” institution.

Fighting words, my friend.

No one knows how severe the cuts in higher education might be until the Legislature’s special session ends. But there’s a sense of hysteria about what may be required to balance the budget.

The state’s total shortfall is a moving target. The latest estimate: $871 million.

Closing the state college would save $11 million a year and disrupt the studies of about 2,600 students.

I don’t think that’s going to happen. Although he’s just one vote out of 13, Regent Chairman James Dean Leavitt opposes wholesale abandonment of the state college. “I personally am a strong supporter of the college.”

When it opened in 2002 in Henderson as the pet project of then Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, the college was pitched with the understanding that its primary mission was to graduate more nurses and teachers.

So have they?

I know a few certified nursing assistants working on their degrees at Nevada State College. In casual conversations they’ve said they believe they are getting a solid education. Some work full time and yet go to college and have families. Frankly, I’m in awe of what they do.

Spencer Stewart, associate vice president of college relations, contends the college is meeting its mission.

Since 2004, the first year students were eligible to graduate from the college, 861 students have graduated. Of those, 437 earned four-year nursing degrees and 175 earned degrees in education. About 90 percent of the nurses have stayed in the state, he said.

The regents never contemplated these would be the only two degrees offered and have approved others, Stewart said. Students have graduated with degrees in social sciences (109), business (69), humanities (54) and physical sciences (17).

At the state college, 45 percent of the students are the first in their family to attend a college or university. And 45 percent are racial or ethnic minorities. Some 57 percent are self-supporting and many support families.

Could they attend the University of Nevada, Las Vegas? Sure, if they could get in and if classes would fit into their work schedule.

But it’s more expensive — $136 per credit versus $98 at the state college. And it takes a 3.2 grade point average to get into UNLV versus 2.0 at the state college. The community colleges are cheaper and easier to get into.

The College of Southern Nevada saw the state college as an upstart that could easily be absorbed into its system (and its already existing buildings) if regents would approve four-year degrees for the community colleges, instead of two-year degrees.

Even Leavitt believes the state college “has clearly gone beyond its original mission.” But the additional degrees were all added with the blessing of the regents. What the regents added, they can take way.

Leavitt said that throughout the system “there’s always a program or two that hasn’t performed as expected. We’ll have the opportunity to eliminate some programs that should have been eliminated years ago.”

Nevada State College will take hits and may lose some programs, like every other institution.

Regents may whittle it back to its original focus of graduating teachers and nurses.

But closing it entirely would be a mistake and shortsighted.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call 702- 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.

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