For Higher Education, a Fix That Kills?

Since I labor at the College of Southern Nevada, any discussion of the politics of higher education here may seem self-serving. But Nevada’s economic recovery depends on improving education. The question is whether the cures are worse than the disease.

This conclusion emerges from a set of recent events that passed by quietly in the mainstream media: the meeting of the legislative committee on funding higher education, and a discussion among Republicans that could make the funding issue moot by gutting Nevada’s higher education system.

The meetings made clear that Chancellor Dan Klaich’s proposed new funding formula for higher education has considerable support. In general, that’s good: The formula promises more fairness and an emphasis on student success.

But the new funding formula would weight classes in a way that damages community colleges and hampers their students by moving more money toward upper-division and graduate classes and basing a substantial portion of funding on graduation rates. The funding for the higher-level classes is understandable—research and equipment cost more. But the graduation-rate formula is unwise and strikes at the heart of the community college mission. Many community college students aren’t looking for degrees but for individual, inexpensive courses, one-on-one help, or specific classes to fill a training or knowledge gap. Under the proposed model, we’d have little incentive to serve such students.

Moving around money may help, but the state’s universities and community colleges also need to find as many funding sources as they can. To this end, they’re checking the cushions for every available dime. CSN hasn’t pushed hard for a Hispanic-Serving Institution designation, which gives access to competitive federal grants to colleges with 25 percent Hispanic enrollment. CSN hit that number a couple of years ago, but when enrollment declined because of cutbacks and problems with a new enrollment system, the figure fell back below the threshold.

State Sen. Steven Horsford, the legislative committee’s chairman, displeased that the system hasn’t done more to pursue additional funding sources like this one, ordered a new committee to study the problem. That may help. But getting the HSI designation requires the state to make sure remedial classes get proper funding—which the new funding formula proposal would make less likely since such classes aren’t even lower-division (100-level), but lower than that (098, for example).

The committee also heard a report on the Lumina Foundation, which bills itself as “committed to enrolling and graduating more students from college.” Lumina said a funding model that rewards institutions only for students completing courses would ruin access to public higher education for those who may need a little help. But that’s pretty much how the proposed model works. It also contradicts the purpose of getting the HSI designation.

Representatives from the nonprofit research group SRI International reported at the meeting that Nevada’s population needs more remedial courses than other states, because so many college students here come from nontraditional, low-income backgrounds.

The funding issue revealed what could turn into a schism that would prove even more damaging than it appeared at first blush. At one meeting, a parade of UNLV faculty explained why the funding formula should give more money for lower-division courses to the universities rather than to community colleges: University faculty, they said, are superior. This went on long enough for Horsford to say he’d had enough, and for an annoyed Klaich to defend community college faculty.

The folks engaged in this intraprofessorial strife may not yet know that, after trying to destroy K-12 teacher tenure at the 2011 legislative session, Republicans are discussing how to do so at the college level at the 2013 session. That would solve the funding problem: Enough faculty would leave that the system could simply close down.