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December 20, 2014

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The fallacy of efficiency in Nevada’s public higher education governance

Abraham Flexner, a great higher education historian, wrote in 1930 that “inertia and resistance have their uses, provided they are based on reasonable analysis, on a sense of values ... not on mere habit.”

The way Nevada governs higher education is a habit that the state must break, particularly as it pertains to oversight of our two-year institutions. A legislative committee studying the two-year schools is expected to make recommendations Tuesday about how to improve governance.

Reasonable analysis, in this case evidence-based analysis, along with decades of higher education research, clearly indicates our two-year institutions must be extricated from the current Nevada System of Higher Education, which oversees all of public higher education in the state. Restructuring NSHE is the best path to create a system that serves our students and state while breaking a power monopoly in public higher education that has become dysfunctional.

The outcomes our two-year institutions are producing place us at the bottom of the nation on almost every measure. The recent availability of state-level data has made it possible for us to examine efficiency metrics in our two-year system. The number of degrees and certificates our two-year institutions produce per 100 students or per 1,000 Nevada residents (both measures of output efficiency) places us 49th in both categories. The number of degrees and certificates our two-year institutions produce per $1,000 investment in education and related expenses (an efficiency measure of what we are getting for our investment) in the two-year institutions places us 42nd.

There’s no actual evidence to support the argument often made that the current centralized structure of NSHE is efficient. The opposite is true. We have an inefficient system that is also ineffective. The efficiency argument is a red herring — an argument based on political rhetoric that is a predictable reaction by those who wish to preserve a structure that was established in 1864 and has not changed since.

Research and additional evidence specific to Nevada also point to a need to break the monopolistic governance structure. Centralized management structures do not work well when systems and organizations become increasingly diverse and complex.

In the first 10 years of the new millennium, Hispanics have increased from 19.7 percent to 26.5 percent of Nevada’s population while those identifying as “White Alone” have decreased from 65.2 percent to 54.1 percent. The enrollment changes in higher education, in diversity and sheer number are even more dramatic. For example, from 1970 to 2010, Nevada’s population increased 453 percent and enrollment into higher education rose an eye-popping 733 percent.

On the economic front, our state also has become more diverse and complex. The two fastest growing industries in terms of employment are those that increasingly require college degrees and certificates: professional and business services, and education and health services. Leisure and hospitality remains our largest industry, but from 1992 to 2012 it also experienced the largest decrease as a percentage of employment in the state.

Nevada’s rural and urban geography further accentuates the diversity of community, business and student needs. A centralized governance structure makes little sense in such an environment. It would be as if the state told Henderson residents that there was no need for city government. Imagine the uproar if state officials insisted that a centralized, state-level structure is more efficient and could best meet the needs of Henderson residents. That argument makes little sense to most of us, yet that is exactly what is happening in higher education today.

Changing a state’s higher education governance structure is no easy task. Inhabitants of the status quo will, predictably, defend their habit, as Flexner warned long ago. They will propose Band-Aid type fixes that will in the long run only exacerbate our problems but protect their interests. They will use scare tactics and misrepresent attempts at engaging in productive dialogue. We will be told that entire institutions will close or that people will lose their jobs. The vigor of such resistance without an evidence-based defense of the current system is indeed a sign that change is necessary.

Our state deserves a top-notch higher education system. UNLV and UNR have admirable aspirations and significant challenges in meeting state and stakeholder needs. This all demands the attention of a focused board, one that does not also try to make policy for two-year institutions.

Our rural communities and urban community colleges need local boards that engage local business and local residents. Until we make a change, we shouldn’t be surprised if businesses are reluctant to invest in our system of higher education. Why would they invest in an ineffective centralized system? Why would they invest in an inefficient monopoly? They won’t, at least not willingly.

As a professor in higher education, I have been reluctant to publicly inject my research and analysis into the governance debate in Nevada. Political ramifications are always a consideration, even for a tenured professor. It is easier to analyze another state and provide expert advice outside one’s own backyard. But when the evidence is overwhelming and the nation’s most respected higher education governance scholar and consultant tells me that our structure is misaligned with the needs and changes the state has undergone, it seems time for a true dialogue. It seems time to put policy ahead of politics.

Mario Martinez is a professor of higher education at UNLV. His books include Policy and Performance in American Higher Education and Innovative Strategy Making in Higher Education.

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