Amid rising costs and pandemic-era budget cuts, college presidents ponder the future of higher education – The Nevada Independent

Rents are rising and inflation is pushing other costs up. All the while, Nevada’s colleges and universities have faced deep pandemic-era funding cuts that, despite plentiful federal aid, are still looming ahead of next year’s legislative session.

These issues have continued to swirl in the background as Nevada’s higher education system has been rocked by internal strife and political efforts continue to completely reshape higher education governance structures through the ballot boxes.

In this context: what might the future hold for higher education in Nevada?

The presidents of Southern Nevada’s three institutions — which combine to represent more than two-thirds of all college students in the state — gathered Friday at Nevada State College for a first-of-its-kind roundtable on “the future of higher education.

These leaders include UNLV President Keith Whitfield, College of Southern Nevada President Federico Zaragoza, and Nevada State College President DeRionne Pollard, who all sat down with The Nevada Independent after the event for an exclusive discussion of the new contours of the higher education landscape – from uncertain budgets to the potential risk of regionalism between north and south.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length.

The Nevada Independent: I want to start with the budget. Obviously that’s a big concern right now with a new fiscal year and the upcoming legislature [in 2023]. So, the economy being what it is, how confident are you right now about what the budget for the next biennium will look like?

Zaragoza: The assumption that we kind of worked on moving forward is that, again, we have a base budget provided by the Governor. And that’s the starting point. And then I think the economy is going to dictate whether we go up or down again.

Remember the last time we had it screened [budget] number, then we had a 12% reduction in 90 days. So it’s very uncertain. I mean, we’re in the same cycle right now. And I’m holding my breath, I don’t know about y’all.

Nevada State College President DeRionne Pollard during an interview at Nevada State College in Henderson on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Tadpole: I think your point is good, I have no certainty about anything going on as a new player here [Pollard is the most recently appointed president of the group, having taken her post in mid-2021] … But there are dollars that are there now, coming in through the federal government.

I think it’s possible to help ensure that colleges have some level of support and protection wherever possible for projects that we know are there, that we could benefit from and to be at the service of what these [federal] dollars were supposed to do.

Whitfield: I would classify [my view] also hopeful, hopeful that we can at least recover the 12% that we have lost. It’s for hiring, it’s for programs, it’s for so many things – to really get a sense of normalcy back. If you think about it, it’s been two more years. I mean, that 12% that we would go back to is still the one that we can see inflation eating away at and eating away at our ability to be able to do things.

So I’m just very, very hopeful that you know, when you see how our city [Las Vegas] did, that some of those dollars can then be put back into the budget.

Just because we were able to function with the cut doesn’t mean we were functioning well. It’s just that I think we’ve all been very, very wise with it.

TNI: A problem has occurred [in budget discussions] are you worried that lawmakers will look at new funding levels, or funding levels that include federal aid, and say “the institutions are doing well” – how worried are you that lawmakers will be able to keep the cuts in place ?

Tadpole: I think our job is to help them understand that, so they don’t see kind of a distorted picture of who we are right now.

The reality is that it was all about short-term money, and they are winding down. So whatever gaps we were able to fill, and that was the intention, [with federal aid] to fill the gaps, these gaps will still exist when these resources are gone.

We kind of sat here, hopefully trying to tread water. At some point you need us to start being Olympic swimmers. And we can’t be Olympic swimmers when we’re pulling a lot of deadweight, which is going to happen here pretty soon.

CSN President Federico Zaragoza listens during a roundtable discussion with Governor Steve Sisolak and U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh on the CSN campus on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Zaragoza: It is not clear now if the legislature is going to be open to the same types of investments. So how do we develop our nursing programs? How do you create these new programs for manufacturing?

Maintaining the baseline is not suited to the environment in which we must develop programs, consistent with a diversified economy. The budget should [go back to] basic, but on top of that they’re asking us to do new things, and it’s not funded at this point.

Tadpole: And talent. I mean, let’s be real honest about faculty and staff compensation. It is a significant problem. I don’t lose people at the State of Nevada because they don’t believe in our mission, and I don’t lose people because they don’t believe this work is important.

Their concerns are that they need adequate resources to do the job they’ve been asked to do, and they want salaries and compensation that reflect the environment and economies we find ourselves in now, that also recognize that they are trying to build roots here too.

They want to buy houses… In fact, a colleague told me about selling plasma because they are worried about gas money. We don’t just talk about them as other ideas, it’s people’s livelihoods, and they’re making the decision to leave the state and go to different places because they think they can get better compensation or know they are getting better compensation than we are here.

TNI: And speaking of faculty, some I spoke to explicitly cited the cost of living as the impetus for their leaving NSHE. Is the disparity between the rapidly rising cost of living, from housing to energy, coupled with the limited opportunities for benefit increases and cuts, not just a disincentive for faculty to leave, but an obstacle to the arrival of new teachers?

Whitfield: Yes.

Zaragoza: It is enormous.

Tadpole: This is problem number one.

president of unlv whitfield
UNLV President Keith Whitfield in his office Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Whitfield: If you’re not competitive, you’re either not going to keep them there, or [for nursing faculty, for instance] they consider saying, “Well, why should I do that? I can make more money as an intensive care nurse than I could ever make as a teacher.

Tadpole: The pendulum swings. I remember a time when I might have gotten two nursing professors at a time instead of one. You remember those days, you know, 20 years ago, more or less.

But the reality is that right now you’re talking about a high-demand industry where you just can’t compete with the private sector to acquire and retain.

TNI: Shifting gears, I wanted to ask about dual enrollment, specifically the recent emergence of UNR dual enrollment programs in southern Nevada [allowing high school students to earn credit at UNR during high school]. These programs are traditionally the responsibility, in Las Vegas, of the CSN and the NSC, so does this contribute to a new regional competitiveness between the north and the south?

Tadpole: I think he talks about a number of things. One of these think tanks published a report not too long ago, they talked about the need to understand [in Nevada]from a governance and mission perspective, who does what.

In my mind, I think it’s at the root. I’m still a ‘why’ person, so why would UNR be interested in doing dual credit here? Is there anything we are not doing to meet the needs of the system? Is it the perspective that [the Clark County School District] needs us to deliver something different than what we have been? Or is there a capacity issue?

Once I figure that out, I’m able to give you a much more thoughtful answer. But these are the questions.

Zaragoza: I approach it from a different point of view. If I could meet 100% of CCDS needs [for dual enrollment], I would be really worried. I’m from one state and one city [San Antonio, Texas] it was smaller than Las Vegas. When I left, we had 15,000 dual enrollment students. We are struggling, maybe, to be 6,000 in Las Vegas.

There are many students who do not enter the pipeline. I think what’s important is that what we do has to be collective. There must be “the why”.

TNI: Quickly coming back to dual enrollment, President Whitfield, you mentioned that you don’t believe dual enrollment programs are a “silver bullet” to the state’s education problems. Can you expand?

Whitfield: I see this from another point of view, which is to say that I believe that some of our colleagues from the North could be [trying] to increase enrollment. And that’s a good reason to double-list. I think that makes perfect sense.

But I think… we have a bigger problem. We don’t have as much of a problem, statewide, with how many kids actually have credits before they start college. We have a problem with the number of children who go to university.

That’s why I tweet all the time and say things like, “Stop putting all your mental energy into the double-letter.”

It’s a great thing to do. But it doesn’t even take much to do. And that solves a much more minor problem, which is, let’s be honest, one of the things that dual registration helps with. [fix] is affordability. And that’s a great goal to have.

But I have this number in mind that only 16% of our kids are ready for college. And we have to double, triple that. It is a more important thing, and you will see here, [CCSD Superintendent Jesus Jara] shakes his head because he wants to see even more of his children have the opportunity to go on to pursue higher education.

There is more than that. And the other element — it’s about community. Because it is even about waiting. About why only 16% of our children go there [college ready], and our community should be absolutely abuzz about it. And there are reasons why, and we need to understand those reasons.

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