Las Vegas Sun

April 22, 2019

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Graduation rate is just one brush stroke in picture of UNLV’s success

Answering a question last week about how UNLV had reached record fundraising levels under President Len Jessup, the state’s chancellor offered a “yeah, but” response that was unfair not only to Jessup but to the entire university.

Chancellor Thom Reilly’s response went something like this: The university made strides in fundraising under Jessup’s watch, but it slid backward in one of its core missions — to graduate students. That was particularly the case for Hispanic and black students, Reilly said.

“In the past year, when we looked at persistence rate — that is, how many freshmen go on to their second year — we actually fell back 3 percentage points at UNLV,” Reilly said during an appearance on KNPR’s “State of Nevada” talk show.

Certainly the falloff is a cause for concern, but before anyone gets the impression that UNLV is doing a poor job, let’s look at a few considerations:

State funding

UNLV gets $6,021 in state funding per full-time equivalent student, according to statistics posted on the Nevada System of Higher Education’s website for the most recent year for which figures are available, 2014-15. UNR, the state’s flagship institution, gets $8,355. That’s $2,334 more state funding per student, and UNLV has 30,000 students. Think an equal amount of state funding might help UNLV’s efforts to retain students?

Income, upward mobility and graduation rates

In a fascinating presentation last month at UNLV, Brookings Institution economics expert Richard Reeves showed how UNLV was bucking a troublesome trend among American colleges to make themselves less accessible to lower-income students. Freezing out lower-income students helps colleges produce higher graduation rates, he said, since high-income students tend to achieve better scholastically than their less-wealthy classmates.

But Reeves argues that schools like UNLV produce more impact in terms of providing opportunities.

“If your goal is the highest possible completion rate of the kids you bring in, then only take kids from the upper middle class, because they’re much more likely to graduate,” he said during an interview before his presentation. “If your goal is to get as many kids from the bottom 60 or 80 percent up the ladder, take a bunch of those kids and do what you can to get them to completion, but live with the fact you’re probably not going to have the same completion rate.”

Reeves said his research showed that UNLV appeared to be “on a mission to be an upward-mobility engine for middle- and low-income students” — and was succeeding.

The median family income of UNLV students is $78,000, well below the level of most Mountain West universities. The median family income for students at UNR, for instance, is $103,000.

Meanwhile, the median income for UNLV graduates at age 34 is $41,500, Reeves said, compared with $45,900 for UNR graduates. That’s significant, because it shows that the value of a UNLV degree is proportionally higher.

In other words, UNLV is propelling its graduates faster up the economic ladder than UNR. And considering that UNLV is one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse universities, with many Hispanic and black students who are the first in their families to get degrees, that’s an enormous opportunity. UNLV deserves credit for welcoming them.

“UNLV does pretty well in taking kids from modest-income backgrounds and giving them a better shot at getting into the middle class,” Reeves said. “The proportion of students from the bottom 60 to 80 percent is going up. So UNLV is actually becoming more of a working- and middle-class university over time, and that’s very unusual. Most of the four-year colleges are not going that direction.”

The Las Vegas economy

The 3 percent dropoff in persistence rate came as the economy was booming and local employers were scrambling to add to their workforces. No doubt, some UNLV students left school for opportunities to start working full-time in well-paying occupations.

Reilly is right to be concerned about a dip in the number of students staying the course at UNLV.

But his comment about the persistence rate provided an incomplete and misleading impression about what’s happening at the university.

In reality, the slight drop-off is hardly a mark of shame considering the imbalance in state funding and UNLV’s noble focus on serving students from working-class and lower-income families.

Jessup and the university have been doing the right thing and doing it reasonably well.