Las Vegas Sun

May 21, 2019

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Nevada State College president: ‘We’re not just changing lives, we’re changing family trees’

Fifteen years ago this spring, Nevada State College consisted of three classrooms, a library and 177-member student body in a converted vitamin plant.

Today, the school’s footprint has grown to four buildings, and space is being prepared on campus for a $38 million education building. Enrollment is at 4,200, and the school is one of the fastest-growing of its type in the nation.

This week, as the campus prepared to celebrate its 15th academic year with a special event today, the college’s president, Bart Patterson, sat down with the Sun to look back at the institution’s history and discuss what’s to come.

Patterson is in his sixth year as the college’s leader but has been involved with it since its inception, as the first general counsel for the school in 2003 and before that as an assistant counsel for the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Edited excerpts of the interview follow:

What are the most significant changes you’ve seen at the college?

We started out really built around nursing and education — the idea that we needed to provide a middle tier of education in Nevada. It’s similar in concept to the California system, which has the universities of California — the research institutions — and then has the California states as the middle tier between the community colleges and those research institutions.

So the whole concept is to have lower cost to the student and to the state to provide professional degrees of value. Hence, the core start of nursing and education.

And we’ve stayed true to those roots, but a lot of people don’t understand that the college is intended to be a comprehensive regional institution like the California states. So we won’t always be small like this. We’re master planned for 25,000 students.

Now, we’re recognized by the Chronicle of Higher Education for the period of 2005 to 2015 as the second fastest-growing baccalaureate college in the country. And in the past two years, our trajectory has been way faster than that.

The shocking thing to me is we had over a 70 percent increase in freshman enrollment this year.

It was just phenomenal, and most of those students were traditional, first-time freshmen.

If you go back and look at the history, nursing and education are still part of our critical core, but we’re starting to get a much more traditional student.

We are still really appealing to nontraditional students, and we’re still an important transfer institution, but now we have this really significantly growing freshman population coming right out of high school.

What’s driving that trend?

Nevada State College is very student-focused in the sense that we hire people to teach and not to research. That’s the whole difference between a research university and a state college: Teaching is our first priority.

Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t have good teachers in a university. You do. But the structure here is built around hiring people first based on whether they’re going to be an effective teacher, not whether they have a large research profile.

That being the case, we’re very appealing to first-generation students who aren’t sure they belong in college to begin with, and this is a place that’s very welcoming to them. Our current freshman class is 60 percent Latino.

What majors are tending to attract students more than others?

Nursing is still the biggest pathway that our students choose as freshmen.

But it’s changing. So now we have a lot more students selecting biology, psychology, business and criminal justice.

Education is still a big degree. However, we need more people to choose it.

What are the challenges in that area?

The principle issue is that students aren’t selecting teaching as a career. We need to convince students — and particularly members of the millennial generation — that this is not only a stable career pathway but also is a chance to give back to the community.

That can be very appealing to this generation. So that’s where we’re focused.

To address that issue, we’ve hit upon the concept of teacher academies. So we’re identifying students in high school — and eventually we’ll start reaching down to the middle school level — who have an interest in being teachers. And then we’re providing dual-credit opportunities in both general education and in teacher education, and then mentoring also and getting them a connection to the college, so it’s much more likely that they’ll select education and have college credits under their belt when they graduate from high school.

Another big impediment to that from the college’s standpoint is we’re out of space already.

The Nursing, Science and Education building was finished in 2015, and the Rogers Student Center was also finished in 2015.

So we received design money in the last legislative session for an education building, which is now being designed. We have a $6 million match on the education building, and our hope is that the funding for the project will be added to the governor’s budget and will be approved by the Legislature (next) spring. If that happens, we’ll have an education building by the fall of 2021.

The whole project will be about $38 million for an approximately 60,000-square-foot building.

But we’re so fast-growing that we estimate that once that is built, it will only give us about five years’ growth.

We’re starting our first master’s of speech pathology program, which will be housed in that building. We’re looking at starting early childhood education and ramping up all of our education programs.

Our perspective is: Education is one of our cores, and we have not built it out as fast as our nursing program.

What have you done to attract such a diverse population?

We work in high schools around the valley. Seventy-five percent of our students come from Las Vegas and North Las Vegas. Where we used to have primarily a Henderson population, and we still do have a significant number of students from Henderson, but four of our five top high schools are in Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, from a recruitment standpoint.

Our entire focus as a college has been geared toward an access mission. It’s really important to the college.

Since we’re so focused on this first-generation, diverse population, we talk all the time about the concept that we’re not just changing lives, we’re changing family trees.

What are some of the other changes being discussed?

I think you’ll see the institution start looking at building an international student program in the next few years, which will give a different character to our school.

And I think we’ll start to get into more degree programs. For example, we’re looking at starting our first degree in the computer science area in data sciences and informatics in the next two to three years.

Eventually, we’ll start to build a much more robust extracurricular experience. We’re building the plans for how we’d do that and fund it without having to go to the state and ask for funding for things like sports and that kind of thing.

What are you envisioning for residential housing?

It could get approved and started as early as this year, but most likely by next year for sure.

We’re looking at several different options, but it could be up to 250 beds.

Would that be funded by the state, through a public-private partnership or some other method?

I’ll call it a public-private partnership, but it’s largely private-private partnership. With as much acreage as we have, we are looking for projects where the builder comes and builds it, develops it, manages it and finances it. It’s not under the college or state at all.

So it has to pencil out as a solid business plan.

But we’ll be looking at a number of other facilities like that on this campus. We’re primarily looking for projects that have synergy with our student population. So maybe it’s a training spot for our students, or maybe it’s a work opportunity for students.

For example, we’ve considered concepts related to assisted living, so our nursing students can work within the facility or train in the facility. So it would have an acute-care component.

It’s one of the interesting things we’ve seen at ASU and the University of Arizona, where you have these facilities located near a college campus. Obviously, we’re all getting older, and gosh it would sure be nice if you could live next to a college campus and go to cultural events and maybe take some classes and stay vibrant.

Possibly, could we have cross-generational interaction again?

So to be able to figure out unique ways to create these communities is something I love about the college. We’re trying to think outside the box in how we form things like this.