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Indy Q+A: CSN President Federico Zaragoza on preparing for COVID in the fall and training a post-pandemic workforce

Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
Education
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As the pandemic rocked higher education systems across the country — forcing classes online, shuttering dorms, cutting budgets — few institutions were squeezed as community colleges were. Nationwide, community college enrollment fell by 9.5 percent last fall, before plummeting again by 11.3 percent this spring. 

Those numbers were no less severe in Nevada, where community college enrollment drops between last spring and this spring ranged from just 6.7 percent at Great Basin College in Elko to roughly 12.9 percent at the College of Southern Nevada. 

Now, with the fall semester now just weeks away, The Nevada Independent sat down with CSN President Federico Zaragoza to discuss how the institution is planning to manage the virus in the coming school year, how the pandemic affected CSN and what role the college could play in retraining the workforce as the pandemic ebbs. 

Even though CSN was among the Nevada institutions hardest hit by the pandemic, Zaragoza said some recovery has already begun as the worst days of the virus have ebbed. But the coming fall semester and a new surge in cases and hospitalizations could present complications for higher education statewide, and Zaragoza said that if the college were to continue offering in-person instruction, “we're going to have to provide a safe environment.”

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


The Nevada Independent: Starting with the issue of the pandemic, there’s been a lot of discussion among colleges and the higher education space over the push for mandated COVID-19 vaccinations. In Nevada, that decision is up to the state and the higher education system, not the institutions, but how do you view the vaccines as a tool to suppress COVID as we head into the fall semester? 

Zaragoza: I think it's a policy tool, and we're committed to being driven by the science. And so at some point, the policymakers will have to make that determination. And certainly, it's in the toolkit.

So right now, from a CSN perspective, it's about waiting to see what happens on the policy side? 

Absolutely. 

A lot of the vaccination efforts on the part of institutions, including CSN, have centered on vaccine outreach. As vaccine rates have plateaued through the summer, do you think that outreach is still effective? Have we neared hitting a critical mass of students who are going to get vaccinated? 

Absolutely not. I think we're at the starting point if you will, of emphasizing the value of the vaccine, the benefits of a vaccine for that age group. We also want to do a lot more in terms of incentivizing vaccines so that students basically have an opportunity to get all the information that they need. So there's a lot of work that we need to do. 

I think we also need to be working more in the space, [and] social media, to push up some of this information within the context of higher education. So I believe that this is work-in-progress, and that we can do a lot more to get more of our students this vaccine.

In terms of communicating why students should seek out the vaccine, what’s the current deficiency in actually convincing students to get the shot? Looking forward to an in-person fall semester with full classrooms, how do you convince students that they should be getting the vaccine in the first place? 

I think you just mentioned the motivation there. If we're going to continue to offer the services, we're going to have to provide a safe environment. And obviously, if we can't do that, we're going to go back to a virtual setting. So that's the consequence. 

We've been there before, and I think it's important that students also recognize that there has been a close-down. And if the environment that we provide is not conducive to safety, we may have to revert to that. So I think that's the incentive. 

When we talk about incentives for vaccines, there's been a lot of discussion of carrot versus stick, right? Certainly on the state side, we've seen the carrot. So from CSN’s perspective, is there a concern that you might have to lean on the stick in order to make sure that COVID isn't an issue this fall?

Absolutely. And we're looking at every element of the toolkit — that includes masks, that also includes the distancing component, and then the [learning] modality. So all of that plays into our toolkit now, [and] that would hopefully move us towards a scenario where we are seeing those numbers reversed. And hopefully, when we get to that point where we have a safe environment, and we all feel comfortable, we can then go back to a new normal. 

But in the interim, we have already made adjustments in terms of the number of courses that are being offered. I think about 70 percent of the courses are still hybrid or virtual. So there's an adjustment that's been made there, [and] a lot of the support services we provide now are virtual as well. And when we come back, we're gonna have a combination of in-campus and hybrid. 

So it's that balance that we're trying to maintain, using every possible strategy that we can to keep our students safe, but also to motivate them and incentivize them to get the vaccine and to help create that environment that's safe for all of us.

Zooming out to the issue of enrollment, community colleges across the country were hit hard by pandemic-related enrollment declines. That includes Nevada colleges, and that also includes CSN, specifically. Even as we’ve recovered through the summer, the virus is surging yet again. As it does, what is your concern, if any, that there could be long-term impacts on enrollment because of the pandemic?

We've been very diligent about enrollment, though we lost 12 percent of our students in fall of 2020. We were the hardest hit of all of the NSHE institutions in Nevada. So we've been very diligently trying to get our students back into higher education pathways, and we've been pretty successful. So for us, this fall, we're about 5 percent up from the previous fall, so our efforts have been pretty successful in terms of providing information and the right programs so that individuals can re-engage with higher education. 

We're focusing on programs that are in high demand. For example, in our Henderson campus, we now have a new Health and Science facility. So we'll be able to provide more opportunities in pathways like nursing, where there's already a high demand, and we already have a waiting list of students waiting to come in. So that's going to help with our enrollment. 

We have a weekend college targeted for displaced workers, and that has a 70 percent fill rate, and then we're doing a lot of partnering with the workforce connection systems to get people that are unemployed back into retraining programs. All of that has given us a burst, if you will, where we actually project a 5 percent increase this fall, which is probably amongst the highest at least among some of the community colleges, or pure community colleges, because most of them are trending either negative or flat. 

A student walks at the College of Southern Nevada Charleston Campus on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

As Las Vegas, in particular, re-examines the need for economic diversification in the wake of the pandemic — especially as the hospitality industry, specifically, was so hard-hit — what role do you think CSN or community colleges generally will play in that diversification?

Yeah, actually, community colleges and CSN, in particular, are the major agents for a workforce retraining and rescaling. And you see that by the way that we work to align our programs to emerging occupations. So I'll give you an example — we're not producing enough nurses. So we're right-sizing the program. We now have an opportunity to have a campus begin to offer nursing, so that'll allow us to double the number of nurses in an area of high demand. That helps diversify, obviously, the student enrollment, but also feeds the diversification of the economy. 

Manufacturing is emerging as one of the fastest growing occupational growth sectors in Southern Nevada. And so we're now developing programs that are aligned to durable goods manufacturing. [The] Haas Corporation has announced that they're going to be locating here in Henderson, and they're going to be creating 3,500 jobs. We're already providing those programs that are going to train individuals for those jobs, information technology, cybersecurity, these are the types of programs that CSN is really focusing on to expand. The economy is diversifying, and we're that pipeline.

Now, the other element here that's critical is a lot of people are getting displaced. About 50,000 of the people that were displaced during the pandemic are not coming back to their previous jobs, so we're retraining those individuals into these areas of high demand. So that's why I think you see some of the increases in enrollment at CSN, because we are providing those opportunities in these areas of occupational demand, and that pay good wages. 

Under some legislation from this year, AB450, there is an expectation that lawmakers may revisit community college funding structures in 2023 under the auspices of “aligning” funding with workforce development goals. Do you think the current funding formula should be revised? 

I can tell you that I've been in two other states, Wisconsin and Texas, and in both of those states, the funding formula allows the community college mission to really maximize the impact in those communities, and I'll give you an example: It's non-credit programs. So you have a lot of individuals that may need a type of instruction that's not a diploma-based curriculum, so maybe they're not degree tract — they want to get a job, and they're going to need training, let's say in a certification area. Some of our programs, for example, in the IT sector CompTIA training (a cybersecurity and IT certification) is short term and it gets you into the workforce. There are some short term training programs like [Certified Nurse Assistant programs] that are available, credit and non-credit. Well, the non-credits are not “aidable.” So you don't get the state funding to support students that are getting retrained in your institutions. 

I've got about 15,000 students that are non-credit students at CSN. So the formula (Nevada utilizes a formula largely centered on funding per weighted student credit hour) doesn't work for them. And so looking at the formula, it's important for workforce [development], because there are different pathways. And the [per-credit-hour] formula is perfect for the traditional student. But for non-traditional students that are looking for short-term training, or for short-term upgrading, that are non-credit based, that's the gap that we’ve got. 

Another element of the formula that I think is critical is the whole issue of whether you base the formula on individual students, or you base it on the number of credits they take — the full-time equivalent (FTE) versus the enrollment number. And community colleges have argued nationally that we need to look at enrollments, because whether it's one student taking one course, or one student taking 12 courses, you still have to provide all of the onboarding services. And yet, for students at a community college, our formula is based on FTE, not enrollments. 

So yeah, we think those are issues that legitimately have to be looked at. And I know that our chancellor -- and I know that our Board of Regents -- is very open to going back and revisiting how the funding formula works. And I'm just very excited that we're going to have that conversation.

How hopeful are you that when we come back to higher education budgets in the 2023 Legislature, that we could see an increase in the total amount of funding put toward higher education, toward community colleges? 

So I'm optimistic, cautiously optimistic, that the Legislature is going to see fit to increase funding for higher education across the board. 

And I worry about communities that are left behind — non-traditional students that perhaps are not college ready, that perhaps are working on their GED or some other parts of their educational pathways. And they're not “credit” students, and they're not being assisted by the funding formula. So I think that that's the conversation that we need to have. And I do think that we're going to need more funding, in general, to support the role of community colleges.

The second piece of AB450 is governance, i.e. does the current structure of NSHE and the Board of Regents work for community colleges. We won’t know the outcome of the AB450’s committee for some time, but as of now, what do you think does or does not work under the current structure? 

So there are some true advantages to having a system of higher education. I've been in Wisconsin, which was primarily a system that had two very distinct governance structures, one for community colleges and one for universities. And there were advantages and disadvantages to that. Probably, you can look at the funding formula and make arguments that it's a clear path to the funding, when you're talking about just the community colleges, and the university decisions are being made in a different side of the house. 

But the issue for us is that there are also disadvantages to that, and I'll give you an example: the issue of articulation (institutional transfers). Most students that come to the Nevada system and take courses in a community college will be able to transfer those courses to universities. So we're integrated, we have the ability to do a lot of joint planning, a lot of collaboration, shared services. And those are benefits that can be easily quantifiable. So there are truly advantages to an integrated system, like the way we've got now. Again, the disadvantages, you've heard about them. They're obvious as well. 

But I've been in a two-tiered system. And I've seen both of them work, and both of them not work. I think the real issue becomes, what is the plan? The execution? And what's the substance of what's being proposed? And that's the part that I haven't seen. You know, I always talk about “the devil’s in the details.” So I'm going to have to see the actual governance proposal, so that I can really make an informed decision, because like I said, right now, you know, there are pros and cons to any governance structure. It really depends on how that is structured here in Nevada.

When you say strategic adjustments, like the implementation of dual enrollment programs, are a necessity in responding to the job markets, I’m curious about the timing of these adjustments. How quickly do you think these programs should be implemented in order for the system to keep up? 

We're playing catch-up. I can tell you that our goal at CSN — when I came to CSN, we had 2,500 students in dual enrollment. We probably have about 6,000 now, and our goal would be that by 2025, we have 15,000. That would mean about half of the CCSD graduates would have earned college credit before they graduate from high school. 

Hopefully, if we do this right, they would be on a trajectory for further education, college-proven. So I think that the models have to accelerate. I left a system, Alamo Colleges in San Antonio, that had 15,000 students (total) when I left. It was a smaller community than we've got here in Southern Nevada, and a much higher penetration rate. So we have to play catch-up. 

And then the other areas — kind of the whole apprenticeship and incumbent worker training — where individuals now are probably going to need a lot more training just to stay productive. The issue becomes, we have to change our systems now to be aligned, so that we can provide training to a different type of population in a different setting. But if you look at the projected kind of dynamics, you are going to need to have lifelong learning. So you're going to need lifelong learning institutions, and I think that's what the community colleges can excel.

So when you say “we’re playing catch-up” — Nevada’s state policymakers operate on a two-year timescale with a biennial Legislature. When we discuss increasing budgets or changing governance, those final discussions are still years away. So how responsive can an institution like CSN really be within that framework?  

I think first and foremost, CSN is going to be as responsive as our environment and ecosystem allows us to be. And I can tell you that in all of these areas, it's not higher education working in a vacuum, especially community colleges. We're working much more in tandem, and I'm going to give you a concrete example. 

I mentioned that we have to expand our ability to reach out to populations that are being underserved. Many of them live in parts of the community that are underserved, that lack infrastructure for higher education. So we're partnering with the city of Las Vegas, and Councilman Cedric [Crear], to be able to develop a Westside education and training center that's going to be located right there in the Westside historical district. And we're going to have training programs right there. So that's a new area that we're outreaching to, [and] we're gonna have a new center of excellence, right here in Henderson, built by the City of Henderson, to serve the needs of Haas and the manufacturing sector that is emerging in Southern Nevada. 

Now, in both of these cases, it's not CSN funds that are being used. These are funds that are being funneled to support CSN. So the community's really realigning their resources into higher education to support the kind of programs that CSN offers. So we can be very responsive if we work in that framework. It's not just realigning the resources that are in our budget, it's realigning the support of the community and resources that are in the community, so that we can be more effective. I can tell you that our foundation almost doubled the number of donors and in a two-year period, because of that effort, I think people see that CSN is moving in a different direction, and that it's a direction that this community supports. With community support, we can be very nimble, we can be very aggressive. 

When we discuss the goals of providing access, of serving underserved communities and getting them into the pipeline, where do you think there’s room to grow? 

We're under-serving at best. If you look at the demand for higher education in Southern Nevada, there's a huge gap between what we can offer and what the need is. And so the opportunity for both is tremendous. The question really becomes, what common investment can we make, so that we get all of our individuals into these pathways that lead to prosperity and self-sustaining wages? 

And you go back to that original question, at the policy question, how much will we be investing in higher education, for what type of treatments and at what level?

And when you say “we” that's not CSN, that's the state of Nevada? 

Correct, our policymakers. 

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