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Thom Reilly in his Las Vegas office on his first day as Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor on Monday, Aug. 7, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

It’s been just over a year since Chancellor Thom Reilly took over at the Nevada System of Higher Education — on the heels of the fraught departure of former Chancellor Dan Klaich.

A former top administrator for Clark County who had previously directed the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, Reilly has had his share of challenges in his first year at the helm in a state that’s one of the worst in the country for higher education attainment. It included the task of bringing on three new college presidents and the messy departure of UNLV President Len Jessup, which earned Reilly scorn from Jessup himself — and some who said he pushed the popular president out.

On Friday, regents will be evaluating how Reilly’s done in the first year of his three-year contract. At stake is 5 percent of his pay — regents can choose to dock his $425,000-per-year base salary by up to 5 percent or give him a raise of up to 5 percent. Board Chairman Kevin Page is recommending a 3 percent raise.

“I’ve kind of staked my reputation … on focusing the board and others on goals that will move the system,” he said in a recent interview with The Nevada Independent. “And that’s kind of what I’m committed to, so optimistically [I’m] hopeful that the regents feel the same way.”

Reilly said he’s tried to focus regents on a simple set of goals. That’s evidenced in the fact that each board meeting agenda item now must note which of the five strategic plan goals it advances — access, success, closing the achievement gap, workforce or research. He said he’s also been trying to create a framework under which regents and presidents can engage in dialogue about important issues affecting their schools.

He’s also overseen the hiring of three new presidents in the system — a process he said is lengthy because it involves not only finding the right candidate, but getting buy-in from a wide range of people including students, faculty, donors and the community at large.

“I think that these are individuals who raised the profile of our system statewide,” he said. “Overwhelmingly, people felt very positive that they were included, that they had a voice in who we brought in at the end of the day.”

Looking ahead, he’s also excited about a prospective new collaboration with MGM Resorts, in which the casino company — the state’s largest employer — will reimburse its employees when they pursue higher education degree and certificate programs through NSHE.

“That alone I think sends a powerful message — the largest employer is saying that the pathway to social mobility in middle class is higher education. We believe in it so much we let our employees get degrees and certificates in other things other than hospitality,” he said.

Regents are also considering a tuition waiver for children who have left the foster care system. That’s a group that’s traditionally had very low enrollment in higher education.

“I think the more we bring these specific programs together and implement them, I’m hoping we’ll have those dividend payoffs at the end of the day,” he said. “And I’ll help them evaluate it on whether we can actually move the needle.”

Here are some takeaways from Reilly’s conversation with The Indy.

Bridging the gap between high school and higher education

Although Nevada has focused intensely on boosting its high school graduation rate, a diploma alone doesn’t mean a student is ready for college. That’s clear from the fact that 53 percent of 2015 high school graduates who enrolled in an NSHE institution had to take some sort of remedial class.

Reilly said the system is working with Clark County School District’s Chief College, Career and Equity Officer Mike Barton to ensure a smoother transition from high school to college. And there’s also a statewide task force the chancellor has put together to address dual enrollment, where students in high school simultaneously take classes in college.

Barton and NSHE officials also want to help students recognize as early as junior high that they should be taking advanced placement courses that better prepare them for the rigors of college. That may mean a check-in at the end of middle school.

“In many states, they do an overall assessment of kids in 8th grade,” Reilly said. “Can we do that [here] … because that informs their high school about the classes they may need, and then you have this benchmarking that you start talking to 8th graders about what they’re interested [in], and what their skills, and what their strengths are. And not waiting ‘til the senior year.”

Reilly said CCSD’s new superintendent Jesus Jara is “very open and interested in partnering more, particularly around this pathway discussion.”

One way the system is trying to encourage enrollment is by distributing a flyer to school districts and community colleges that shows the top 10 highest-paying jobs that people can get if they earn a certificate from NSHE and don’t have a degree. One is in the field of heating and air conditioning installation and repair, where people who completed a certificate program from NSHE earned a median wage of $54,000.

“We can be doing better programs in high school. So not only are they getting dual enrolled, but they’re actually getting certificates,” Reilly said. “But if we’re not talking to the young people about other options, if the majority of high school kids are not going on to four-year institutions, where are they going? Well, we know from statistics that a lot of them aren’t entering higher education. They are later in life, but they’re not at 18. And they’re not going to be competitive.”

Career and technical education

As campaign season revs up, candidates are more frequently talking about bolstering career and technical education, or CTE. But what’s really happening in that sector, which usually is a forte for two-year colleges?

Reilly pointed to the recent selection of Vincent Solis as president of Western Nevada College in Carson City and Federico Zaragoza as president of the College of Southern Nevada. Zaragoza was vice chancellor for economic and workforce development at the five Alamo Colleges in the San Antonio area, while Solis was chief academic and student affairs officer at Laredo Community College on the Texas-Mexico border.

“They’ve come from systems where they have really integrated the two-year degrees and workforce, and looking at it holistically, they’re not two separate pathways anymore,” Reilly said. “We’re talking about how within the certificate, it fits within two year and four year.”

One of the system’s five overarching goals is “workforce.” The point of that is to better align educational programs with the needs of employers, and create new degrees and certificates based on feedback from the business community.

Reilly said the system needs to do a better job logistically at acting on that feedback so businesses aren’t just talking to one isolated school, but the force of the entire system is marshalled to meet the needs of any given industry. He said the universities in particular need to find their place in meeting workforce needs.

“Our community colleges are much more nimble. They can respond more quickly to developing a certificate, offering it,” he said. “Where I think our universities need to do a better job is to be working with industry to think forward, what is the type of skill set we will need in 5, 10, 15 years because the amount of job creation, job elimination that we will face in the next decade will be something we’ve never seen before.”

Right now, the system is leading two different broad discussions between school and industry leaders: One on health care and nursing, and the other on education. Those discussions link people in business with the college deans, who work closely in designing curriculum, to determine what skills students need upon graduation to get a job in a particular field.

“When I ask presidents now when we’re creating new certificates or degrees, they have to be based upon evidence from the industry, or elimination,” he said. “There’s stuff we could probably go through and determine where we best put our resources and maybe certain degrees and certificates aren’t as relevant as they were in the past.”

Tuition hikes

Regents recently took a closely split vote to raise tuition and fees by 4 percent in the next two school years.

Reilly said the decision was based on an assessment of the Higher Education Price Index (HEPI), which is akin to the Consumer Price Index for colleges and universities. It measures the inflation that colleges nationwide are experiencing, including the rising cost of salaries and benefits.

“The policy says basically that I can only come back with what HEPI recommendation is. So, it could be higher, but minimally, you have to keep up with that,” Reilly said about tuition changes.

Originally, the recommendation was that system tuition go up 1.8 percent. But then the latest HEPI figure came out at the end of 2017 showing a 3.7 percent increase — the highest bump in the index since 2008.

“Obviously that is a national standard … that’s evidence based that you can use to look at the growth in higher education,” he said. “But it’s also a fundamental commitment that we have in Nevada with the Legislature that … it’s a shared cost for tuition.”

Regents also talked this summer about the possibility of locking in tuition over the course of several years, although they didn’t make any decisions on it. Reilly said he’s now researching how schools in Arizona have pursued such a model and plans to present some options at a meeting in November.

Also, individual colleges have been told they need to have conversations with their student bodies this fall about how they plan to use the extra money they’ll be receiving from the tuition increase. They’re supposed to report back to the regents in October with feedback.

“Students expressed concerns about … raising the amounts, and they wanted to be part of the conversation about how those student fees would be used,” he said.

Looking ahead

With two more years to go in his contract, Reilly has laid out some goals for helping boost NSHE’s profile and performance.

It’s hard to measure change in graduation rates over shorter periods of time, but he says he’s looking to increase persistence rates — the likelihood that someone will continue in their course of study from one year to the next. That’s a more measurable metric from year to year.

Reilly has directed NSHE institutions to identify an “aspirational” school — a successful institution with similar characteristics and demographics that can serve as their mentor. He envisions the colleges will develop relationships with their peers at another institution to learn their strategies for success, rather than looking only to other schools in the state.

“I do think that’s a better and more healthy discussion in our state than talking about UNR and UNLV,” he said. “They’re different and their pathways are different.”

He said the discussion about the MGM collaboration has highlighted that Nevada is behind the curve on offering online degrees, and he wants to increase the offerings. There’s progress — UNLV committed to five new bachelor’s programs online next year and two in the following year, he said.

And as for the tension over Jessup’s departure that cast a pall this spring? Reilly said the system won’t pursue the ethics law violation case that his lawyer indicated could be a possibility in light of a questionable contract. He thinks it’s time to talk about the system’s future rather than the past.

“Things are quieter in some respects, too. But we haven’t lost focus on where we need to go as a system,” he said. “I think we’ve got a lot of great consensus from the governor, the Legislature, our president, to the community, that these are the right goals. So, I’m trying to continue to focus on how we achieve it.”

Disclosure: MGM has donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.

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