Las Vegas Sun

June 24, 2024

State’s community colleges trying to avoid sacrificing quality for quantity


Steve Marcus

Deborah Harbour, left, gives instruction to Marie Lamarre on Monday during a microbiology lab at the College of Southern Nevada’s Charleston Campus.

In the three tiers of Nevada’s system of higher education, the role of the community college has been constant: There will always be room for new students.

Statewide, more students attend community colleges than attend UNLV, the University of Nevada, Reno, and Nevada State College combined.

But education bosses are wondering whether community colleges should still offer a place for every student who wants one.

There seem to be two options facing financially pinched Nevada: that community colleges accept all qualified students and give them a lesser-quality education, or maintain the quality and accept fewer students.

Chancellor Dan Klaich said it might be time to start talking about a cap on enrollment.

Klaich acknowledges that among community college educators, such talk is tantamount to heresy. He raised the issue at the UNLV Faculty Senate on Nov. 17 and plans to discuss it further at this week’s Board of Regents meeting in Las Vegas.

“Is mediocrity acceptable?” Klaich asked during a Nov. 23 interview with the Sun. “If budgets are declining and demand is increasing, there is no choice but for the quality of service to the individual student to decline as well.”

Klaich said before any caps would be put in place, “a great deal of input would be necessary ... this is a very serious concern that needs a full, public airing.”

It’s also a judgment for the state as whole to make, Klaich said.

“Do we say we will serve everyone and do as good a job as we can?” Klaich said. “Or do we stand up and say, ‘When we take tax money from the state and tuition and fees from students who come through the door, we will do our best to provide them with quality instruction that prepares them for life and a job’? I don’t want to take their money on an empty promise of an education.”

Among the issues to be considered would be whether a cap would kick in once classes were filled on a first-come, first-served basis or if admissions requirements might be raised, as a means of reducing the pool of qualified applicants.

Nevada has four community colleges — College of Southern Nevada, Great Basin College, Truckee Meadows Community College and Western Nevada College, with a combined enrollment of more than 66,000 students.

All four campuses have seen enrollment growth this fall, ranging from 4 percent at CSN to 9.5 percent at Western Nevada. At the same time, state funding for higher education has been sharply cut — including 8 percent at CSN, totaling $8 million for each year of the biennium.

CSN President Michael Richards said there’s already a “de facto” cap on enrollment at his campus, as students are unable to find spots in the classes they need. This fall CSN is offering 4,418 course sections with 95 percent of them at capacity. General education classes are typically the most popular, and students are having the most difficulty finding open spots in math and science classes.

Richards said he’s heard plenty of complaints from students who have been unable sign up for a full load of courses, which costs CSN funding from the state. There were 5,106 students who were unable to enroll in even one class for the fall semester and walked away. CSN officials estimate the campus has lost $2.6 million in revenue as a result.

“Especially in this recession, when there are so many people seeking to retool their skills, we ought to be accessible, convenient and here for our community,” Richards said. “That’s the nature of community colleges — our pivotal value is access.”

However, Richards said, given the reduced resources available, there is an intrinsic conflict between the desires to preserve quality and to admit as many qualified students as possible. CSN plans to “err on the side of quality,” Richards said, to make sure its graduates “go forward with the skills they need to be successful.”

To help meet demand, CSN — with an enrollment of more than 43,000 — is taking an innovative approach next semester, offering midnight classes in six core courses.

Registration for the midnight classes opened at 11:30 a.m. Monday, and Biology 189 filled up within an hour.

“When people are clamoring for classes at all hours, having an enrollment cap is a disservice,” said Nathaniel Waugh, president of CSN’s student government. “I can understand why the chancellor wants to talk about it, but I don’t support the idea.”

With UNLV having raised its grade-point average requirement for admission, more students than ever have turned to CSN, Waugh said.

“If they get turned away from us, their options for higher education drop drastically,” said Waugh, who expects to graduate next year with an associate degree in political science. “We need to continue to balance access and quality, and we’ve done a good job so far. Everyone I talk to has only good things to say about the quality of instruction at CSN.”

When registration closed this fall, CSN student Robin De Leon found herself shut out of the math classes she needs before she can take the higher-level courses for her biology major. She pleaded with at least four instructors for a spot — unsuccessfully, because other students were ahead of her on the waiting list.

For the spring semester, she had better luck, landing a seat in a coveted expanded math course that covers material that otherwise would take two classes to complete.

CSN is supposed to offer more convenience for working adults and those with family obligations, De Leon said. But her spring schedule “is all over the place,” with classes scattered throughout the week rather than grouped in more convenient blocks.

“It used to be you could find open classes and make it work around your job,” said De Leon, 27, who recently left a retail position for online clothing sales. “The way it is now, you pretty much take what you can get.”

Enrollment is up at community colleges nationwide, including millions of people seeking job retraining after being laid off. At the same time, community colleges are facing unprecedented budget cuts, with percentages often in the double digits.

Community colleges have a unique place in the world of higher ed, “committed to the ideal of an open institution that takes all comers,” said Katherine Boswell, executive director of the Community College Policy Center, a national research clearinghouse in Washington, D.C. “We take you where you are, and help you gain the skills to go where you want to go.”

That sort of mission makes talk of enrollment caps — whether deliberate or de facto — all the more painful, Boswell said, “but at some point you have no choice. We can’t continue to expect institutions to provide more and more with no revenue.”

Although an enrollment cap might serve as a short-term solution, there needs to be a closer examination of the long-term problem, Boswell said.

“Policymakers and educators need to get together, get creative and rethink how we fund community colleges,” Boswell said. “With the changes in our economy and demographics, the need is not going to go away.”

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