Higher education fix: quality over quantity

Big budget cuts are coming to higher education. Every institution is preparing for them.

The question, at this point, is whether the Board of Regents is up to the task of rethinking its missions and reinventing a smaller, more efficient, less redundant system.

Contrary to all the predictions of doom surrounding Gov. Brian Sandoval’s spending plan, which proposes a $162 million subsidy reduction for colleges and universities in the 2011-13 biennium, this is a chance to make Nevada higher education better.

The administration at the College of Southern Nevada clearly understands that big cuts demand big change. Long the state’s largest and least-funded institution in terms of enrollment, CSN used a recently compiled budget reduction plan to articulate the need for reformed business practices, given economic realities.

“For years (and perhaps now, a habit), CSN has operated with the incentive for funding mandated by the state: growth (sometimes disproportionately rapid),” the report says. “The result has been: 1) faculty and staff attention on coping with growth, accommodating more and more students with less attendant focus on program strength and quality; 2) minimal assessment of courses, programs, student success, and the institution generally; and 3) practices from admission to graduation that gloss over obstacles to student success and institutional effectiveness.”

News flash: It’s not just CSN, folks. The Board of Regents and the Legislature have created a system that emphasizes guaranteeing everyone in Nevada the opportunity to enroll in college classes and rewards putting butts in seats. Whether students are actually getting a quality education and bettering themselves has been a secondary mission to growing campuses.

Well, CSN can’t play that game anymore. No one in the system can.

No one in the system should.

“The premise of this plan is to make required cuts in the access mission of a community college, not reduce programs,” the report says.

“In general, CSN’s mission of quality instruction takes precedence over the access mission.”

Quality over quantity. This is the charge of the Board of Regents.

In last week’s column, I debunked the talking point that simply producing more college graduates will diversify and grow the economy. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that a college education just ain’t what it used to be, even as college costs continue their upward trend.

This week, it’s about the fixes needed to not merely save Nevada’s higher education system, but strengthen it.

1. Smaller enrollments. The notion that everyone should be able to go to college is as outdated as the idea that everyone should own their own house (look where that got us).

For a lot of students, colleges are selling false hope and saddling them with debt. Just look at the studies that show huge increases in the number of college graduates working in jobs that require only a high school diploma.

2. Higher standards. The surest way to limit enrollment is to raise standards, both in admissions and academics.

Nevada’s public universities, UNLV and UNR, need to be much more selective. Currently, incoming freshmen are supposed to have graduated from high school with at least a 3.25 grade-point average, a benchmark that’s quite mediocre given the scourge of grade inflation. B is the new C. It’s average. As it is, the universities grant a lot of exemptions to that standard.

UNLV’s own data show retention and graduation rates of incoming freshmen correlate with their cumulative high school grade-point average. Only 40 percent of students who enter UNLV with a high school gpa of 3.25 graduate within six years. Meanwhile, almost 90 percent of freshmen who had at least a 3.75 gpa in high school make it to their sophomore year, and more than 60 percent graduate within six years.

With more capable students in classrooms, professors can put more rigor into their curricula.

Regent Kevin Page believes there are merits to a system placement exam as part of the admissions process, directing students who don’t qualify at UNLV and UNR to Nevada State College or to community colleges.

3. Blow up the system’s funding formulas. End the practice of tying subsidies to enrollment, and let campuses keep their own tuition dollars, rather than send them to the state and hope they get it all back.

Additionally, charge variable tuition rates at every campus. High-cost, high-demand programs should cost more. A 100-level class taught by a graduate assistant should be cheaper than a 400-level class taught by a highly regarded professor. Stop making the early washouts subsidize the survivors.

4. Promote and encourage transfers. Instead of pitting institutions against one another, make them work together.

First- and second-year undergraduates should be directed to community colleges, which provide instruction for the same credits at less than half the cost of universities. Students who receive associate’s degrees are guaranteed placement at a university, if they want a bachelor’s degree.

The universities and their faculties want to emphasize research. The colleges want to emphasize instruction. Let each have their way, and move students through multiple campuses to complete their studies.

5. Eliminate duplication, especially regionally. Taxpayers can’t afford to have two and three campuses offer identical degree programs. Consolidate and shuffle faculty and students accordingly.

6. Stop trying to be all things to all people. A lot of degree programs will have to go.

7. Put a premium on great teaching. Instead of all the blustery big-picture talk of economic diversification and training tomorrow’s workers when there are no jobs, system leaders need to put the horse back in front of the cart.

It all starts with good instruction, challenging courses and high expectations for students. There are no more guarantees in this world with respect to employment. The system can’t promise a better job. It can promise academic rigor.

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

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