Las Vegas Sun

August 1, 2021

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If only Nevada had community colleges

Nevada has no publicly funded community colleges.

Don’t take our word for it. While finishing work on Nevada’s Plan for Recovery and Resilience, we asked the U.S. Department of Education to verify the status of the state’s community colleges. The reply: “Our records show that there are no public community colleges, but there are 10 private for-profit community colleges.”

Because the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) and the regents encourage the proliferation of four-year degree programs at all campuses, the federal government has taken NSHE at its word and classified all its institutions as four-year colleges.

So big deal NSHE considers CSN, Great Basin, Truckee Meadows, and Western Nevada as two-year institutions despite the fact that they offer four-year degrees.

Should we care that these institutions are misaligned with Washington’s standards? Actually, we should.

Under current economic recovery efforts, the federal government is likely to allocate resources for workforce development resources to community colleges. The availability of these resources, coupled with the fact that Nevada has no federally recognized community college, is why in his State of the State address, Gov. Steve Sisolak directed the Legislature to establish “independent” community colleges. Failing to do so could result in lost jobs and career opportunities for thousands of Nevadans.

Why Nevada does not have any federally recognized community colleges is because of decisions made by former chancellor Dan Klaich. In 2010, Klaich sent a letter requesting that the U.S. Department of Education ignore its own classifications that other states manage to follow and instead either create new categories for Nevada or allow “institutions to report in the category in which their state or governing board place them.”

Klaich’s letter was motivated by wanting the federal government to reclassify these schools as exclusively two-year institutions because these colleges underperform in key metrics such as student-to-faculty ratios, enrollment per capita and graduation rates compared to most other four-year, degree-granting institutions. Moreover, based on the federal data, businesses looking to invest in Nevada might assume the state lacks community colleges and the associated workforce training resources.

After being rebuffed by the feds, Klaich plowed ahead with policies that ensured Nevada’s would remain unaligned with federal standards. Against the advice of SRI International, the consultant hired by the Legislature during the development of the funding formula, Klaich insisted on a single university-based funding structure that remains in place today.

Because NSHE’s funding formula provides more resources for upper-division and graduate courses than lower-division and certification-based ones, Nevada’s “two-year institutions” are incentivized to offer more and more four-year degrees. That’s exactly what they have done.

Then, as part of a 2014 legislative study considering reforms to Nevada’s “community colleges,” Klaich plagiarized a draft of a Brookings Mountain West report analyzing how Nevada could improve its workforce training efforts. The report was used to convince legislators that NSHE was serious about remaking “community colleges” and create the rationale for yet another highly-paid NSHE bureaucrat — vice chancellor for community colleges.

NSHE now has that vice chancellor but lacks a federally defined public community college. Talk about administrative bloat and poor governance.

NSHE apologists claim that governance has nothing to do with the state’s poor performance in higher education, but the state’s new economic development report and a stack of previous studies assessing Nevada’s higher education governance — from consultants and think tanks such as SRI International, RAND, NCHEMS, Brookings, and The Lincy Institute reached the exact opposite conclusion.

By the time Klaich’s plan was implemented, Nevada’s last community college, Truckee Meadows, was being reclassified as a four-year school due to curriculum expansion.

The results?

Nevada’s so-called community colleges continue to be governed by the Board of Regents of the University of Nevada (there is no such thing as an “NSHE Board of Regents”). While this arrangement is bad for Nevada, it helps NSHE fulfill its core mission: organizational preservation.

Because these institutions are incentivized to offer four-year degrees, they are incompatible with the federal government’s data tabulations and comparative performance metrics. Yet the schools have not gained the enhanced public identity and resources associated with a BA-granting state college.

Compared with other states, Nevada has a fraction of the public-private workforce development programs that provide critical training in fields that do not require four-year degrees but facilitate upward mobility. For example, consider the advanced manufacturing credential students earn at Chandler-Gilbert Community College via a partnership with Intel. Upon completion of their training, students move seamlessly into employment at the company’s Arizona microchip manufacturing plant.

The combined graduation rates for the institutions that NSHE classifies as “two-year institutions” is less than 20% and even lower for minority students. A new analysis from the The Lincy Institute and Brookings Mountain West reports that Nevada ranks 50th in “technology and science workforce training.” By contrast, Mountain West competitors such as Arizona, Colorado and Utah rank 29th, fourth and 10th respectively.

By providing generous tax incentives and low regulatory barriers, Nevada attracts technology firms needed to diversify the state’s economy despite our often dead-last performance in many higher education and workforce measures. As the state’s new economic development report shows, Nevada shares an extended labor market with nearby metropolitan areas in Arizona, California and Utah. Our “Blanche DuBois Economy” is not limited to its reliance “on the kindness of strangers” to just fill hotels and resorts. It also extends to the talented migrants working in the state’s advanced technology and business service sectors who fill the jobs that Nevadans are not trained to do.

We applaud Gov. Sisolak’s leadership on this important issue. Indeed, while higher education restructuring has been studied over and over, every effort to modernize governance and administration of Nevada colleges and universities has been undermined by NSHE and its network of pandering supporters without regard for how the status quo puts Nevada at a competitive disadvantage and hinders the state’s economic development efforts.

David Damore is a professor and chair of political science at UNLV, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. Robert Lang is the Lincy endowed chair in Urban Affairs and executive director of The Lincy Institute and Brookings Mountain West. William Brown Jr. is the UNLV director of Brookings Mountain West.