Las Vegas Sun

January 17, 2018

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Sun Editorial:

Finding fairness

Lawmakers have to address the inequity in higher education funding

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Lawmakers have been wrapped up in a debate over how the Legislature doles out money to the seven teaching campuses of the Nevada System of Higher Education. It’s an important matter because how the Legislature funds higher education will influence the state’s future. And there’s no doubt that the funding formula lawmakers have used is broken.

In 2011, the Legislature created a committee to recommend how to improve the formula. The committee hired SRI International, a highly respected consultant, to help with the undertaking. But its findings have not been the primary focus of the discussions. Instead, university system Chancellor Dan Klaich proposed a funding formula that, after more than two dozen revisions, is now the plan before the Legislature.

Lawmakers are fighting over the amount of money that the plan will provide each campus. Northern and rural lawmakers complain that it would shift money to the south, but the amount of money they say would be sent to Clark County would be modest. And that’s assuming there really would be a shift in funding.

Northern and rural lawmakers want to protect campuses in their parts of the state from financial hits for at least two years, and that would put off any shift in money. It’s also unclear what the formula would look like with current enrollment numbers, so lawmakers can’t be sure how much, if any, extra money would go to the Southern Nevada schools.

But instead of having a discussion about who gets what, lawmakers should be considering the serious funding inequities in the system that exist as well as the policy decisions they’re making with any funding decisions. We have serious concerns about not only how higher education is funded but also the level at which it is funded.

The state certainly needs to make a greater investment in its colleges and universities, and it also needs to reconsider how the money is spent. It can start with the issue of fairness.

From what we have seen in the proposed funding formula, the inequity wouldn’t be erased and could even be exacerbated.

As it is, the three Southern Nevada schools get less money per student from the state than the four rural and northern campuses. For example, in the current school year, UNR receives about $1,250 per student more than UNLV. Carson City’s Western Nevada College, a community college, receives nearly $2,000 more per student than Henderson’s Nevada State College, which offers bachelor’s degrees.

The difference in schools is in more than just per-student funding. Western Nevada College’s main campus in Carson City has nine buildings, an observatory and a baseball field. The college has two satellite campuses with four other buildings and five “centers” spread around the region that also offer classes. It had a total enrollment last fall of 4,166 students. The state poured $15 million into the college, 72 percent of the school’s operating budget.

Meanwhile, down south, Nevada State College officials pleaded poverty and recently went to its student body of 3,405 and asked for an increase in student fees just so it could build classrooms.

What’s more, the state budget has put a greater emphasis on the northern and rural schools. The state picks up a larger portion of the tab for the four northern schools. For example, UNR gets 66 percent of its budget from the state’s general fund compared with 56 percent for UNLV. Great Basin College receives 78 percent of its budget from the state compared with 62 percent for the College of Southern Nevada.

The message in all of that is that students in Elko or Reno are worth more; after all, they get a greater subsidy to go to school than their peers in Las Vegas.

That can’t be the message the Legislature wants to send, can it?

Lawmakers, especially those in Southern Nevada, should be embarrassed. Nearly two-thirds of the students attending a state college or university are in Southern Nevada, and if lawmakers plan to have a real discussion about the funding formula, they should start with the blatant inequities these students face.

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