Extreme Makeover: College Edition

Everyone within the Nevada System of Higher Education has reached an inescapable conclusion: Gov. Brian Sandoval is no Jim Gibbons.

Two years ago, when the unpopular Gibbons proposed sweeping budget cuts at state colleges and universities, administrators knew the Legislature already had the votes to pass tax increases over the governor’s veto. There would be some funding reductions in the end, yes, but nothing approaching the likes of Gibbons’ budget — and nothing matching the doomsday rhetoric of system officials.

Today, Sandoval wants to cut $162 million from the system’s subsidies for the 2011-13 biennium. And the response of campus presidents has been downright fatalistic. Sure, they’re protesting the new governor’s budget, warning that it threatens the state’s future. But with each passing day — the 2011 legislative session already is more than a quarter complete — it becomes clearer that they can’t expect a fiscal rescue from the effects of the recession.

Like Gibbons, Sandoval promised to fight tax increases. Unlike Gibbons, Sandoval has the support of enough fellow Republicans to keep his promise.

So campuses, in cooperation with the system office, are preparing detailed plans to make Sandoval’s numbers a reality.

Last week, UNLV President Neal Smatresk recommended ending 33 degree programs. College of Southern Nevada President Michael Richards proposed closing every satellite center and possibly the Henderson campus. More tuition increases are certain. Every campus is formulating a plan.

However, the Board of Regents has final say on those plans. And it’s up to the regents to take a broader, systemwide approach to scaling back operations. It’s an opportunity to reward success, consolidate, eliminate redundancies and inefficiencies and give students and taxpayers better value.

It’s an opportunity to make system campuses function and grow together rather than compete against one another to build a bigger empire.

Whether a majority of the members of the Board of Regents is up to the task is another story.

In February, the board voted 13-0 to oppose Sandoval’s budget, then ordered member institutions to lay the groundwork for cuts anyway.

And during Friday’s meeting in Carson City, some regents seemed open to answering their charge like battlefield medics instead of plastic surgeons. Shutting down institutions that do some things well doesn’t make sense if doing so preserves lousy practices at surviving campuses.

These cuts will not be made in a vacuum. Higher education subsidies are being scaled back across the country. It’s a new reality, not just for colleges, but for students and parents, too. Colleges and universities have to change to address it.

The new book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” found, in a study of more than 2,300 undergraduates, that 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in their critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills by the end of their second year of higher education. After four years of college, more than a third of students remained academically stagnant.

Half of the students who participated in the research, conducted at 24 schools, had no courses their prior semester that required 20 pages of writing during their prior semester, and one-third had no courses requiring 40 pages of reading per week.

The book’s authors, sociologists Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia, say both sides share blame. University faculty are generally more interested in research than teaching, and students are more interested in socializing than studying, seeking out easy courses to fulfill diploma requirements.

And last week, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote about how globalization and technological advances are increasingly eliminating middle-wage jobs, including positions that traditionally require some form of higher education.

This trend flies in the face of politicians’ current favorite argument: Churning out more university graduates will drive economic recovery and diversification.

“The notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking,” Krugman wrote. “It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.”

This news comes as higher education costs continue to rise even faster than health care expenses.

“It’s not the case that giving out more credentials is going to make the U.S. more economically competitive,” Arum, co-author of “Academically Adrift,” told The Associated Press. “It requires academic rigor. … You can’t just get it through osmosis at these institutions.”

The country is awash with recent college grads who aren’t that much more rounded than they were when they graduated from high school, who are unemployed or underemployed and up to their eyeballs in student loan debt.

This is what regents need to think about as they remake the Nevada System of Higher Education.

They need to help students learn more while paying as little as possible.

As a starting point, regents should ask themselves a simple question: Why in the world would a local high school graduate want to pay roughly $5,700 to take a year’s full load (30 credits) of 100- and 200-level classes at UNLV? In the fall of 2010, only 31 percent of those courses were taught by full-time faculty, and 32 percent were taught by graduate students.

At the College of Southern Nevada, those same 30 credits would cost a little more than $2,000. At Nevada State College, they’d cost about $3,000. The right classes can be transferred to UNLV, and they’re more likely to be taught by full-time faculty who actually want to teach. Neither school has classes taught by graduate students or teaching assistants.

That’s more efficient. That’s better value.

Next week: How to save — and fix — higher education in Nevada.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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