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Higher education makes pitch

CARSON CITY — Smaller-than-expected enrollments in Nevada’s colleges and universities might lead to bigger bills for taxpayers.

Lawmakers were asked Thursday to fund the Nevada System of Higher Education at the level originally proposed by Gov. Jim Gibbons for the next two years even though enrollments will be far lower than anticipated. System officials are seeking $24 million in additional funding to compensate for the anticipated loss of student fees and tuition from the lower enrollments.

Overall, the higher education student population is projected to grow by 1.9 percent over the two years of the budget. Earlier projection had put growth at 5 percent.

David Ashley, president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told a joint Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means budget subcommittee that cuts in the short term are difficult.

Three-fourths of the budget is being spent on salaries and benefits for faculty and staff, Ashley said. The cuts that would be required to match the lower enrollment figures would set the campus back in its development, he said.

“I believe this is a defining moment for the future of UNLV,” Ashley said.

The number of full-time equivalent students attending the system in fiscal year 2007-08 is now projected to be 2,717 fewer than the number included in Gibbons’ original budget. For the 2008-09 year, the number of students will be 3,821 lower than originally projected.

At UNLV, the full-time equivalency figure in the second year of the new budget is now projected to be lower than the actual number in the 2005-06 fiscal year, lawmakers were told by legislative staff. The full-time equivalency was 20,034 in fiscal year 2005-06 at UNLV but is expected to hit only 19,814 by fiscal year 2008-09.

Dan Klaich, executive vice chancellor of the system, said a number of factors are contributing to the enrollment decline projected at UNLV, including the relocation of remedial classes to the community colleges, the tightening of the requirements to receive a Millennium Scholarship, higher GPA admission requirements and the opening of the Nevada State College at Henderson.

The lower enrollment projections mean $28.9 million less in student fees and tuition than budgeted for the coming two years.

But higher education officials asked the Legislature to maintain funding levels as proposed in Gibbons’ original budget, even with the lower enrollment projections.

Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, said the state can’t afford to allocate millions of dollars to the higher education system “for students you don’t have.”

The university system has to come up with a plan on how to address what probably will be less revenue than was originally projected, Buckley said. Whether it is further tuition increases or the elimination of part-time instructors, the system has to come up with a plan to deal with a smaller pot of new revenue, she said.

Further complicating the picture is a request by Gibbons for $112 million in new spending reductions across most budgets statewide as a response to lower-than-expected growth in tax revenues. The university system’s share of such cuts totals almost $33 million.

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