Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008 | 2 a.m.
For years, students at UNR have paid the same registration fees as those at UNLV.
But this fall, UNR students could have to cough up more for their education than their peers down South.
The disparity owes to the fact that the universities will use different methods to balance their budgets in response to a state revenue shortfall.
UNR will charge students as much as $5 a credit more to enroll, generating an estimated $1.5 million in the next fiscal year, and will make cuts. UNLV’s plan, on the other hand, includes only cuts -- no surcharge.
The difference in fees will be temporary, administrators say, with UNR’s surcharge expiring in 2009.
But even fleeting inequality invites debate over whether students at similar state institutions should all pay the same fees. Students’ tuition and fees aren’t chicken feed for the state’s universities; they account for a quarter of UNLV’s income, for example.
Registration fees at comparable institutions have traditionally been identical in Nevada. But some higher education systems elsewhere operate differently, with similar schools charging varied amounts.
Each arrangement has proponents and opponents and pros and cons.
Former Gov. Kenny Guinn believes the surcharges, even if temporary, are unfair to students and parents in Reno.
A $5-per-credit surcharge would add $150 to the $3,885 in annual registration fees for an undergraduate student taking 15 units a semester at UNR next year.
“It’s unequal charging for an education at a state institution that is supported by state funds,” Guinn said.
“I’d be happy,” he added, “to volunteer my time to show (UNR) how they could cut that money out of the budget.”
Come fall, students at the state’s four community colleges could also be paying different amounts. The College of Southern Nevada could impose a surcharge of as much as $4.50 a credit. Meanwhile, Great Basin College in Elko, Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno and Western Nevada College in Carson City are considering extra fees of as much as $2.75.
Student leaders at UNR and CSN told administrators over winter break that they supported those schools’ extra fees.
Dan Klaich, executive vice chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, said the surcharges and the differences they create among campuses are acceptable because they are a stopgap measure to address a short-term problem.
“If we were talking about a long-term, permanent difference in the cost of education, then I think I would have a much bigger concern,” Klaich said. “But instead of that what we’re talking about is the necessity of an institution like UNR and UNLV to react on what is virtually an immediate basis to a very significant budget reduction.”
The danger of a long-term variation is that students could begin to judge a college by its price.
“It creates perceptions that I think build ill feelings because it’s not a very far step from ‘I charge more than you do. I am better than you because you are ... cheap,’” Klaich said.
Campus-based fees for recreation centers and other specific services mean students at similar schools in the state already pay different amounts.
But the surcharge is not a special-purpose fee, and general registration costs have typically been the same at comparable institutions. Most recently, they differed after schools implemented temporary, varying surcharges in the 1992-93 academic year in response to a state budget crisis.
Unlike Klaich, James Dean Leavitt, a member of the Board of Regents, which governs public higher education, said the system should be open to charging different amounts at like institutions on a permanent basis.
Such a change would require further study, but “there’s no reason to treat all the institutions the same because they’re not the same,” he said.
The student population at Great Basin College, for example, differs greatly from that at CSN, Leavitt said.
UNR President Milton Glick shares Leavitt’s view, saying, “To the extent that UNLV and UNR can be on the same page, I think that’s positive. I certainly don’t see it as a priority to be the same. I don’t think we should be driven by that.”
Though UNLV and UNR have similar missions, each has unique needs and programs, Glick said. If UNLV and UNR administrators thought they needed to charge different amounts to best serve their students, Glick could accept a small, permanent difference in fee levels between the two universities.
He cautioned that a large variation could lead students to focus on cost instead of on the quality of education when choosing schools.
Returning to Klaich’s point, UNLV President David Ashley said he favors uniformity in part because people equate price with quality. “We want to make sure that the two universities are seen in the public eye as similar in quality and having similar expectations for the students.”
As Regent Steve Sisolak said, “We’re one state. We don’t want these institutions fighting against each other, competing against each other -- with the exception of on the basketball court and football field.”