Las Vegas Sun

May 19, 2019

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Sun Editorial:

Nevada’s universities are critical to state’s future economic success

FOR THE RECORD:

UNLV President Neal Smatresk talked to the Las Vegas Sun’s editorial board Sept. 23, the day after his state of the university speech:

“I think the real take-home message is: We’re stable, we’re strong, we think we’re in a very good fiscal posture to move forward. We have limited resources to invest but we’re going to invest them to great effect so that we can really build the quality of this institution and make sure that more qualified students ... are getting a great education and a rigorous curriculum. And there’s a lot of evidence to show that’s where we’re tracking.”

On tuition:

“If we raise tuition too much it’s certainly going to block access and make it harder for students to graduate in a timely fashion. Somehow we have to find that magic balance between how much we generate in tuition revenue that supports the educational programs here and how much our students can afford to pay. ... Our first service needs to be to support the growth of higher ed degrees in this region.”

On political support:

“I am convinced that our governor understands that higher ed is key to building a better future for this state, and I’m convinced that our legislators do too.”

Interim UNR President Marc Johnson in his state of the university speech on Sept. 26:

“Now, it is time to move forward, to focus again on building individual, departmental and university reputations for service to our students, our professions, and our communities. ...

“We will have the opportunity in the next four years to determine how to grow our programs on our own initiative, not expecting significant additional state funds.”

The leaders of UNLV and UNR both recently gave their annual speeches outlining the state of their universities and, without shying away from the difficult fiscal realities facing their institutions, both were remarkably optimistic.

UNLV President Neal Smatresk said his university had hit “rock bottom” but was on stable financial ground.

“We’ve been looking down,” Smatresk said, “and it is time to start looking up again.”

In a speech a few days later, interim UNR President Marc Johnson declared that although the university is “narrower” after years of cutting, it still has the ability to “change the lives of Nevadans and steer our state in a more prosperous direction.”

It is heartening to hear such talk, and we hope that Smatresk and Johnson can strengthen the universities as they deal with the economic challenges. It won’t be easy.

Over the past few years, both universities have felt the economic blows along with the rest of us. They have seen massive drops in revenue and have cut about 1,300 positions combined.

The remaining faculty and staff have seen their pay cut, and both UNLV and UNR have closed dozens of academic and degree programs. Student tuition has also been increased 13 percent this year.

Nevada can’t afford to continue cutting the universities because they are critical to the state’s economic success. Good universities can act as engines for economic development and help lead their state to a brighter future. The Brookings Institution has reported that areas of the Intermountain West where people have high levels of educational achievement have fared relatively well during this economic downturn. Unfortunately, Nevada isn’t one of those areas.

Over the years, the state hasn’t made education the priority it should be, and student achievement has lagged.

A report released Tuesday by Complete College America, a nonprofit group that advocates for higher education, shows that Nevada has a low college graduation rate. Just 17 percent of Nevada college students graduate from a four-year school on time, and only 52 percent graduated in six years. That’s troubling because the report estimates that within nine years 58 percent of the jobs in Nevada will require a college degree. As of now, just 28 percent of Nevadans have a degree.

Education has to become a priority for Nevada to turn things around economically. Both Smatresk and Johnson understand the reality that they have to do more with less, and they have tried to position their universities to succeed. They can’t do it without support. The state’s leaders and its citizens should get behind efforts to keep improving education.

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