A Learning Experience

Nevada State College faces uncertain future as increasing enrollment offset by budget cuts, low graduation rate

There are many clichés that describe current feelings at Nevada State College—“carpe diem,” “waiting for the other shoe to drop,” “bide your time.” The list goes on, but for the faculty and staff at the Henderson-based college, they aren’t just clichés.

Like those at other educational institutions in Nevada, faculty, staff and students at Nevada State College have been holding their collective breath since the most recent round of budget cuts last July. And with another 6.9 percent in budget cuts made during the Legislature’s recent special session, NSC President Fred Maryanski and his staff have run numbers and strategies like two teams before the Super Bowl. They have a game plan. Now they just have to implement it.

For now, the numbers seem to be on the school’s side. The Henderson-based institution boasts a 23 percent enrollment increase since last spring and more than 2,600 students—the most in the school’s eight-year history.

But those aren’t the numbers on the minds of Maryanski and his staff.

“The government gave us some hints about what will be coming,” he says. “We’ll have to find the approach that minimizes the damage to our students. We’re looking at positions and programs, and so I can’t say there is anything for sure that will happen. … It’s a complicated formula.”

A 23 percent enrollment increase, which means additional revenue through tuition fees, might seem like it would help to cancel out the 24 percent budget cut from last July, but Maryanski says the math isn’t that simple.

“It doesn’t cover administration and student support costs,” he says. “That’s where we have to tighten up and do more with the same size staff.”

Lee Young, vice president for Enrollment Management and Student Experience, has been feeling the pinch for months. The department, which recruits students to the college, could attend 20 more events such as high school meetings and college fairs if they had more staff, he says.

“We could do more, but our staff is already pushing 50 to 60 hours [a week] for our standard services,” says Young, whose workweek usually tops 70 hours. “I think we’re absorbing as successfully and gracefully as anyone with the cuts. The situation is so fluid it moves from extreme to extreme every day, every hour. You have to live in the moment. Whatever happens we have to maintain the day-to-day operations.”

Three years ago, Young’s staff was 15 percent larger with fewer students to serve. Although he wonders how he will stretch his already-stressed staff even further, if the state government looks “at the pattern of growth and how we’ve done so well with so little, I think we could be used as an example of what you can do with opportunity.”

However, an increase in enrollment doesn’t necessarily mean most of those students will actually leave Nevada State College with a degree. In 2008, the school reported a six-year graduation rate of about 16 percent, with 187 total graduates (in the spring, summer and fall). In 2009, the number of graduates jumped to 224, and there are 110 students projected to graduate this spring.

Meantime, continuing curriculum as planned is the goal of the School of Education, which is second to the School of Nursing in enrollment increase. Despite sweeping cuts to education, Lori Navarrete, interim dean of the School of Education, says her graduates have a place in Nevada school districts.

“We have areas we can’t fill [in the schools] even in these hard times,” she says. “Within a couple of years, there will be more jobs opening up. Clearly, our district hasn’t closed schools.”

As the enrollment numbers illustrate, Nevada State College is gaining real estate on the radar of diverse students. The average age of an NSC student is 25, but Maryanski says he’s seen an increase in students in their 30s as well.

“That’s true of all schools of education. We’re seeing that nationally,” Navarrete says. “[Older students] are coming back. … We definitely feel we have a place in the system other schools may not meet.”

No matter what the future holds, however, Young says he will continue to do the best he can with what he is given.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “But I’m not sure what it is. It may be an oncoming train or the light of salvation.”