Putting the Squeeze on Community Colleges

While President Obama talks about ballooning tuition costs across the nation, the Nevada System of Higher Education is trying to resolve some problems of its own.

At issue is the school funding formula, which is based largely on enrollment. Southern Nevadans complain UNLV receives less money in the budget than it produces for the state. Northern Nevadans say that’s no reason to go changing things.

Chancellor Dan Klaich has proposed a new plan to solve these imbalances. His intention is good—to encourage a school’s excellence rather than its mere existence. But it appears the plan would leave community colleges, such as the one where I teach, scavenging for the big boys’ leftovers. This is a problem when the College of Southern Nevada has the highest enrollment in the state.

One step appealing to universities and community colleges alike is enabling institutions to keep the tuition and fees that usually go to the general fund. College students help subsidize other programs when the governor and Legislature take an ax to their schools.

Under the new system, the cost of courses would guide funding. This would benefit universities and courses with labs and expensive equipment as opposed to liberal arts courses that help students understand the political process and how to think. It means more money for upper-division classes and less for the lower-division classes where students prepare for more advanced studies and training.

Funding would also depend on graduation rates, as Klaich recently told KNPR’s State of Nevada. “Right now, we are an input-based model. We fund on enrollments … We should be an output-based model.”

Output means graduates. Schools will get more money when they graduate more students. But, as several professors and administrators warned, this model could cause grade inflation and a collegiate form of social promotion.

Under the new model, universities would likely raise admission standards and possibly cut lower-division offerings. Community colleges would, then, have to do more remediation for at-risk students. And—since many of those students wouldn’t graduate—they’d have to do it with less money.

Even the best students often take classes at a community college not to get their associate’s degree but to retool specific skill sets or to prepare to transfer to a four-year program. Why force them to obtain a degree they neither want nor need if they will get a more advanced degree later? If an outstanding student could move to a four-year university after one year at CSN (i.e., without graduating), this system would encourage me to discourage the student from moving up. That’s haywire.

Klaich’s approach admirably seeks to force Nevada, especially Las Vegas, to change its culture and truly support education. Our appallingly low high school and college graduation rates reduce wages and revenues. Unfortunately, this would try to solve the problem at the level of output rather than input. The real problem is how our children are raised, the K-12 system and how educational institutions operate at all levels. And changing funding models isn’t about to fix that.