Las Vegas Sun

November 16, 2018

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Where I Stand:

The price of One Nevada: Higher education edition

One of the most important issues this election is how Nevada will pave the way for a prosperous future. Unfortunately, the state has neglected Clark County, home to nearly 75 percent of the state’s residents. Nowhere is that more clear than in higher education. In his piece below, David Damore, a UNLV political scientist and fellow at the Brookings Institution, explains how the data show Southern Nevada greatly subsidizes higher education in the rest of the state. That leaves the bulk of Nevada’s college students, who attend school in Clark County, at a great disadvantage. This election, Southern Nevada voters need to elect people who will stop the politics that allow this. It’s not about stealing from Northern or rural Nevada, it’s about being fair. — Brian Greenspun

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During the 2013 legislative session, the way the state funds its colleges and universities underwent numerous changes. Yet, despite these policy changes, little attention has been devoted to assessing if these reforms delivered the promised fairness.

Last week the Lincy Institute at UNLV released a report that I authored examining what the 2013 higher education funding reforms accomplished, and once again Southern Nevada received the short end of the stick.

Take, for example, what’s called the weighted student credit hour (WSCH), which is the main driver of state support for campuses’ operating budgets. The good news is that, at long last, the state funds UNR and UNLV at the same level.

However, because the funding structure includes a number of institution-specific carve outs and subsidies, some of the two- and four-year schools in Northern and rural Nevada receive more than 50 percent more funding per WSCH than the College of Southern Nevada and Nevada State College.

Although these regional funding inequities are not as great as they once were, the state continues to prioritize the education of some Nevadans because of their geography. Consider this: If all of the special funding was eliminated, the southern schools would receive $25 million more in biennial funding than they do now.

In addition to the operating budgets, there are 19 other higher education appropriations totaling $228 million for the biennium that support the University of Nevada School of Medicine at UNR, UNLV’s law and dental schools, and other programs with statewide missions. That includes $56 million in appropriations to the state administrative agency overseeing higher education, the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE).

Among these appropriations, UNLV is allocated less than half of the funding UNR receives. While some of this discrepancy stems from UNR’s status as the original branch of the state university, many of the programs located and staffed on the UNR campus are supposed to support statewide initiatives. However, as UNR reported to the Board of Regents of the University of Nevada, in 2013 only 24 percent of the money was spent in Clark County, while 71 percent of it was spent in Washoe County and 5 percent in the rest of the state. Of the money spent in Clark County, nearly all of it supported the medical school’s activities in Southern Nevada.

My report also examines infrastructure differences between UNR and UNLV. Although the share of higher education delivered to Nevadans at UNLV is 43 percent greater than at UNR, UNR has vastly more space for research and teaching. Given the enrollment of Nevada residents at each campus, it would take an additional 2.1 million square feet of building space on UNLV’s campus to match the teaching and research capacity at UNR.

This does not mean though that UNR’s vast infrastructure is not being used to educate students. It is, just not necessarily students from Nevada.

Roughly 2,500 out-of-state students, the vast majority of whom are from California, attend UNR at a discounted rate through the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE). In contrast, in 2013 just 71 Nevadans attended WUE institutions in California, and Nevada typically receives two to two and a half times more students than it sends with 70 percent of this total attending UNR.

Despite 2007 testimony by NSHE that policy changes it was undertaking would achieve balance in “roughly four to six years,” between 2011 and 2013 the state’s WUE imbalance increased by more than 600 students.

The uptick in such students attending UNR highlights what may be the most significant effect of the 2013 policy changes: how fees and tuition were accounted for under the old funding framework and during the transition to the new funding structure. Under the old funding structure, revenue generated from student fees and tuition offset future general fund appropriations. As a consequence of the elimination of this policy, UNR reaps over $20 million annually from its WUE students; a sum that is nearly two and half times greater than the total of such revenue contributions to the other six teaching institutions.

Some may quibble that my analysis neglects an appreciation of the historical context in which the 2013 reforms occurred. The historical record, however, could not be clearer.

Under the old funding structure, the northern schools were funded with significantly larger shares of general fund revenue, while student-generated revenue was a much larger component of the southern institutions’ operating budgets.

As if this was not bad enough, during the transition to the new funding structure, the old funding structure’s budgeting rules were reserved so that campuses were allowed to retroactively bring forward excess student-generated revenue. This policy yields a $17.2 million windfall for UNR and $14.4 million in reductions to the southern schools’ 2014 and 2015 appropriations.

In closing, let me leave you with this to chew on: To understand Nevada’s higher education priorities, consider that NSHE receives more funding than four of the institutions it manages. It appropriates tens of millions of dollars for statewide initiatives that rarely extend beyond Washoe County. It educates Californians at a rate well below what these students would pay in their home state. And it redirects millions of dollars in funding from overcrowded campuses serving majority-minority student bodies to further subsidize the education of students elsewhere in the state.

So while politicians and their state-legitimizing chorus propagate “One Nevada” as a vacuous, feel-good sentiment meant to excuse historical and ongoing regional inequities, in the case of higher education, the consequences of “One Nevada” policymaking is a system that, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management System, is 11th in per full-time student funding but a bottom dweller in performance.

In light of this poor return on investment, it is difficult to think “reforms” that shuffle a few dollars from one end of the state to the other will make much of a difference.

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