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Breaking down the push to break up Nevada’s higher education system

Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
EducationLegislature
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As Gov. Steve Sisolak delivered his second-ever State of the State address last month — one delivered in the shadow of a yearlong pandemic and a grinding economic recovery — there came something of a higher education policy surprise, tucked roughly halfway through the 30-minute speech. 

“We need to recognize that our community colleges will play an even bigger role in workforce training,” Sisolak said. “That’s why I will be asking the Legislature to work with the Nevada System of Higher Education over the next two years to develop a framework to transition Nevada’s community colleges to a new independent authority that will focus on making Nevadans job ready. Community colleges, together with union apprenticeship programs, are critical elements in building Nevada’s workforce and economic future.”

Those three lines — just 80 words in all — were the only mention of community colleges in the governor’s 18-page-long speech. But in the time since, they’ve triggered a flurry of questions with no apparent answers, all centered, theoretically, on a simple idea: transition Nevada’s four community colleges out from underneath the Nevada System of Higher Education. 

A spokesperson for the governor’s office, Meghin Delaney, told The Nevada Independent in a statement that the governor’s office had yet to submit a bill draft request — the first step of any prospective legislation — and that “we look forward to more discussions in the future.” 

Interviews with nearly a dozen higher education officials, administrators and faculty advocates show that, as of now, few of those discussions have taken place. 

The heads of all four Nevada community colleges — the College of Southern Nevada, Truckee Meadows Community College, Great Basin College and Western Nevada College — as well as Chancellor Melody Rose and Regent Cathy McAdoo, who chairs the regent’s Community College Committee, all declined to comment on the proposed idea, and all cited the lack of any specific proposal to comment on. 

“We [at NSHE], I think, share a common goal to make sure our community colleges are strong and healthy and well-supported,” Rose said. “I'm just looking forward to learning more. We haven't seen language yet, and so I'm hopeful that there will be further conversations with the governor as he sharpens pencil and works on the language.” 

With no clear plan yet articulated by either the governor or legislators, it remains unclear how or when such a plan will take shape. But, some advocates said, the bones of such a plan could easily form from the patchwork of higher education systems across the country — a patchwork that includes dozens of state-level governance structures devoid of any unified, central system and some that draw a clear distinction between two-year and four-year schools. 

All the while, the governor’s decision to spearhead a possible breakup of NSHE comes only as the latest attempt to apply high-level macro-fixes to a system long plagued by a deep-seated institutional mistrust between system administrators and Carson City. 

In just the last 10 years, that mistrust grew so vast that legislators sought to remove the Board of Regents — a body of thirteen elected officials who govern the state’s higher education system — from the state Constitution. 

In a proposed constitutional amendment that would later come to be known as Question 1, legislators argued that NSHE and the Board of Regents had for decades used its position in the Constitution to use legal backdoors to evade legislative scrutiny and meaningful oversight.

Both at the time and since, regents laid the blame for these issues at the feet of bad actors — long ago ousted from the system — and said Question 1 amounted to a “solution in search of a problem.” 

Question 1 narrowly failed last fall, rejected by voters by a margin of just 0.3 percentage points. In doing so, voters — who advocates for Question 1 said were confused by a lengthy, dense and difficult-to-answer ballot question — preserved the status quo for at least the next five years, or the time it takes to propose and pass a new constitutional amendment. 

But even as a new chancellor, two new university presidents and a soon-to-be new state college president have entered the fold since last August, the tense relationship between Nevada legislators and NSHE has yet to publicly thaw. 

As lawmakers convened last summer, the promise of incoming fresh leadership did little to stem the tide of incoming cuts. Not only did legislators vote to approve more than $110 million in cuts mandated by the governor’s office, they went further in slicing an additional $25 million from the system.

In the time since, the mood on the budget has lightened some as the governor pledged to restore a number of cuts — pledges that include millions for new construction projects and a promise to end state-worker furloughs by the start of the next fiscal biennium. 

Still, even with such restorations, Nevada higher education institutions will stare down a minimum budget cut of 12 percent through 2023, equating to roughly $85 million per year in system-wide reductions. 

And as the money question looms in the forefront of this year’s expected higher education legislation, it is in large part the broader implications of just how each college gets its money that has defined the earliest stages of a potential NSHE breakup. 

Western Nevada College as seen in Carson City on Wednesday, February 6, 2019. (Luz Gray/ The Nevada Independent)

A question of funding

Often at the core of recent pushes to reform, adjust or update Nevada’s higher education system has been the budget itself, and more precisely, the foundation of that budget: the funding formula. 

Overhauled in 2013 and later approved by lawmakers and the governor in 2015 and 2017, the formula includes both a “base formula” and a “performance pool” for institutional funding, with the former being based upon student credit hours, weighted differently depending on the coursework being completed. 

That weighting occurs in so-called “discipline clusters,” with more expensive clusters, such as graduate or technical programs, often receiving the highest weight. 

Still, critics of the new formula say it is too uniform in its treatment of wholly different institutions, even if student credit hours are weighted differently. 

Among those critics is David Damore, a professor and chair of the UNLV Department of Political Science, fellow at Brookings Mountain West and one of several co-authors of a “recovery and resilience” report prepared for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) alongside the consulting firm SRI in December of last year. 

That report, among other things, recommended the “redesign [of] governance and funding mechanisms for the community college system.” Part of the reasoning for that, Damore said, is a funding formula that utilizes a “university structure” is too opaque in its weighting of different classes, and that fails to consider an institution's capacity to deliver different courses. 

Because the largest institutions can offer the largest classes, large intro-level lectures with hundreds of students, Damore said there will always be an advantage over institutions forced to provide the same courses at drastically smaller class sizes. 

“So it really advantages the schools that have more capacity and can offer that kind of stuff,” Damore said. 

But for the community college presidents, the issue of the funding formula, and budgets more broadly, is a complex one that lacks a simple solution. 

“[The challenge] is not necessarily about the differences, it’s about how each institution navigates the challenges of these budgets and the limitations of the budget,” WNC President Vincent Solis said. “So I don't know, it's not going to be a one size fits all. It's a complicated process … the only thing that I can say is that it's expensive, the budgets have to keep up with expenses and every year expenses go up.”

Part of the funding issue unique to community colleges stems from the delivery of highly specialized technical programs. From welding to diesel technology to electrical, these programs — the same ones touted as necessary by the governor’s office, the SRI/GOED report and others — often come with outsize monetary costs that, absent built-in state funding, have been offset by private funding and state grants. 

“These are not cheap programs,” GBC President Joyce Helens said. “Ely, for example, when the mine there, Komatsu, said, ‘we need diesel, we’re trying to get people from Salt Lake, we can't, there just aren't anymore, can you start a diesel program?’ Well, to start a diesel program costs minimum, like, half-a-million dollars. So it was through the governor’s grants, and through industry, through Komatsu and others, they chipped in, and we were able to create a diesel program.”

This pooling of resources creates what Helens called a “well-lighted pathway” for students in rural Nevada, “a ladder up and a ladder out” of upward mobility that remains critical for students without the resources of the state’s urban corridors. 

And though Helens praised the existing system for creating a “tight-knit fabric” between institutions with different specialties and unique benefits — “I could work with UNLV or UNR if I can’t afford to offer anything they can” — she said she would have liked to have seen lawmakers revisit the funding formula, especially amid the budget crisis triggered by the pandemic. 

“Because one size doesn’t fit all,” Helens said. “And I knew that there were others who said ‘yes, they wanted to do that’ …  I just think maybe taking a look at the funding formula, to say ‘how does it work for all of us,’ would be a good idea.”

Amid broader discussions of the equity of the existing funding formula, the ongoing pandemic — and the economic crunch that followed — have created new concerns, especially among the faculty saddled with much of the burden of reduced operating costs. 

Cheryl Cardoza, an English professor at TMCC and chapter president of the Nevada Faculty Alliance at the college, said she was glad to see the governor pledge to end furloughs by the next fiscal year. But she also questioned the lack of protections for part-time faculty hit with those same furloughs, as well as rapidly “eroding” health care coverage. 

All the while, Cardoza said the hyper-focus on workforce development and other technical programs belies the fact that most community college students — roughly 60 percent at TMCC alone — are on track to transfer to a university. 

“I find it very difficult to understand why the governor is proposing this sort of ‘Workforce Development’ theme when it's outside the purview of what any other community college is doing in the United States,” Cardoza said. “Not to say that there aren't work training facilities, but that's not what community colleges do in the United States.”

Then, there is the issue of grants — or, for some critics, the lack thereof. Some proponents of a split have argued that NSHE’s unitary system has pushed the state’s four colleges away from their original mission as “community colleges,” and in so doing, risked jeopardizing potential federal dollars. 

In an op-ed published in the Las Vegas Sun last month, Damore and his two co-authors, Robert Lang and William Brown Jr., — who also helped write the SRI/GOED Recovery and Resilience report — argued that “Nevada has no publicly funded community colleges,” according to classifications by the U.S. Department of Education.  

This, they wrote, is largely due to the “proliferation of four-year degree programs at all campuses,” a proliferation that has, in their view, led to the erroneous categorization of the state’s community colleges as four-year institutions — a label that has left them ineligible for federal workforce development grants targeted at community colleges. 

However, these facts are disputed by NSHE officials and other experts, who say the federal IPEDS classifications in question — short for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System — would have no impact on the ability of the state’s colleges to apply for or receive federal money because they are still classified as “majority associates” institutions.    

David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges, said that the offering of four-year baccalaureate programs by community colleges “in no way” rendered them ineligible for funding. 

“For those programs that are targeted specifically on community colleges, policymakers ensure that institutions that primarily award the associate's degree, which is one of the defining characteristics of a community college, are eligible to compete for funds,” Baime said. 

More than 130 community colleges award some number of baccalaureate degrees, Baime said, or roughly 15 percent of all community colleges nationwide. 

“The offering of baccalaureate degrees by a community college in no way makes them fundamentally different from other community colleges that do not offer baccalaureate degrees,” Baime said. 

Still, those in favor of removing colleges from NSHE’s purview — including Damore — have pointed to an incident in 2014 in which CSN was forced to withdraw a bid in the fourth round of federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grants — a federal grant program aimed specifically at two-year education and career training programs. 

But documents from that period show that the issue arose from a misalignment between the programs included in CSN’s application and the federal requirements for that particular period, not any apparent issues with IPEDS classification. 

Instead, the college axed its bid after the U.S. Department of Labor ruled that the CSN programs in question “were not enhanced enough” to meet the TAACCCT requirements, according to a report prepared by an outside consultant for the remaining three Nevada colleges that did receive that final round of grant money. 

And though the college abandoned the fourth round of grant funding, CSN still received TAACCCT funding in two other rounds of applications. That includes the second round of grants, where CSN was the sole Nevada institution to receive any federal money through the program. 

Setting aside the technical specifics of the grant application process, proponents of a split have argued vocally that the TAACCCT saga represents, if anything, a missed opportunity for the state’s colleges, which, according to the SRI/GOED report, received less than $24 million of $2 billion made available by the Labor Department. 

Still, the loss of one grant may not transfer to the loss of another. To wit, CSN was awarded nearly $7 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce just this month for education and workforce training in West Las Vegas. 

Students gather inside the Donald F. Stone Classroom Complex at the College of Southern Nevada Charleston Campus on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

A question of governance

For those in favor of the push to separate the state’s universities from the community colleges, the question of budgeting is inseparable from the question of governance. 

“You have to both do the governance and the funding,” Damore said. “It just can’t be one, so you're talking about defining what these schools’ mission is, and then providing a governing structure that's going to support that and providing the funding that's going to support that.” 

Though Nevada’s economy is highly regionalized, Damore said, the centralized statewide system “doesn’t really respect the notion” of those regions. 

“Northern Nevada has very different interests and interfaces with a very, very different part of California than Southern Nevada does,” Damore said. “Elko is going to interface with Utah, and even into Denver, through mining, and we don't recognize that fact. We just say you're all going to be colleges, and some of you will be allowed to give PhDs and some of you will be allowed to give B.A.s, but we're going to call you a two-year institution.”

As a result, the wholesale determination of community colleges statewide has done little to define the structural differences in mission between colleges like CSN and TMCC — deeply embedded in their respective urban centers and adjacent to the state’s two universities — and a college like GBC, which maintains several far-flung rural campuses with unique specializations in technical trainings. 

However, administrators were largely skeptical of the structural impact of classifications such as two-year or four-year, or any kind of clerical distinction between the workforce development programs undertaken by institutions as different as CSN and GBC. 

And without another clear indication of what issue would be solved by a separation in governance, some administrators said they were unsure of why such a move should be pursued at all. 

“I've never been a person who's protected structure for structure’s sake, or even my own position, so I don't care about that,” GBC President Joyce Helens said. “What I care about is creating [a] well-lighted pathway for students — so how can we do this? I've heard what the governor said, too, so it seems like we're being offered a solution, but I don't know what the problem is yet.”

Helens said “of course” she saw room for improvement within NSHE, but said that in the course of her career elsewhere she’s seen “very fractured systems,” and that they were defined by a need to “raise your hand” in order to secure the necessary resources. 

And though she, too, would not comment on plans with “zero detail” available, TMCC President Karin Hilgersom said she viewed the timing of such a proposal as “weird,” especially in such close proximity to the failure of Question 1. 

“For me, personally, I would hate to fix what ain’t broken, you know, and I think we finally are at a place with our regents … there’s a group of regents now that I really love working with because they’ve developed, just, an appetite for all things two-year-college.”  

Regent Cathy McAdoo, who chairs the board’s Community College Committee, also defended the existing governance structure, saying in an emailed statement that “Within the integrated system of NSHE, we are able to strategically develop clear pathways to advance our students' career mobility at all levels.”

But for advocates of systemic higher education change, the failure of Question 1 has only created a new urgency to commit to new reforms. Chet Burton, a former president of WNC, former NSHE chief financial officer and outspoken supporter of Question 1, said he believes “we [don’t] have any more time to waste.”

“The status quo, in my opinion, it's just not sustainable anymore,” Burton said. “And I applaud the governor for seeing that. There's a lot of things we want to see happen in our state in terms of economic diversification and bringing new industry, and you have to have a trained workforce — and he understands the role of the community college plan, and I think he's come to the same conclusion.”

Noting that the regents are embedded in the Constitution as the governing body for the state’s universities, Burton said an ideal system, in his view, would allow the state’s colleges to utilize a “mix of statewide and local representation in their governance that understands the unique roles they play in their communities.” 

With so few details fixed in stone — or even articulated publicly — exactly what state might become the model for a new Nevada system remains to be seen. Though Nevada, which has a single statewide board charged with overseeing all higher education institutions, is not necessarily unique, it is just one system in a mottled patchwork of governance structures scattered across the U.S. 

Thus far, there have been at least a handful of options floated by proponents: Arizona State University is mentioned explicitly by the SRI/GOED report, which praises its use of public-private partnerships as a supplement to state-appropriated funding; California has long separated the governance of its universities and community colleges under two separate boards. 

And though some states similar to Nevada also maintain a singular, statewide board — most notably Idaho and Utah — those states still maintain key differences in the finer details of governance itself. Idaho, for instance, also utilizes a separate division for “community and technical education,” while Utah, though it combined its regents and “technical college” trustees into a single board last year, also utilizes a system of appointed regents, including at least one appointment of a trustee from a technical college.

Through the first few weeks of the legislative session, however, there appeared to be little movement on the governor’s promise, and thus, few details, concrete or otherwise. And, in the absence of such details, the only thing left for administrators, faculty, students and the rest to do: 

Wait, and see.   

Correction, 2/10/21 at 9:20 a.m. — This story was updated to accurately reflect a quote from TMCC President Karin Hilgersom, who said regents had an "appetite for all things two-year college," not an "appetite for all things your-college."

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