Giving Higher Ed the Old College Try

With a new medical school and more 21st-century degree offerings, our institutions of higher learning are determined to be players in the economic diversification game. Because they have to be.

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Many tears have been shed and much ink has been spilled over Nevada’s continued spot at the bottom of national education rankings. The dismaying state of K-12 draws a lot of complaints and ideas (if not quite so much action), but sometimes it pulls focus from the supposed goal of those 13 years of schooling: college.

While the state of higher education in Nevada isn’t quite as dire—or discussed—as that of K-12, it’s still not in good shape. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has given Nevada an F in public higher-education access and success for the past several years. Only about 22 percent of the state’s adult population has a bachelor’s degree (the national average is 29 percent), and four out of five states have more colleges than we do. Much of this can be attributed to the notion that a degree isn’t all that crucial in a place where you can make a better living parking cars with a high school diploma than you can teaching seventh grade with a master’s degree. But Nevada’s economy is diversifying, and it’ll take more than a GED to get a gig building drones or Teslas.

At a recent higher-education panel discussion hosted by the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, Dan Klaich, chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, drove home this point. “These colleges are the foot soldiers in the fight for a better Nevada,” he says. “We need to create the workforce of tomorrow.” LVGEA President and CEO Tom Skancke agreed: “Education is one of the top priorities for our organization. This is the most important issue for our community and our economy.”

During the Great Recession, UNLV, the marquee name in Southern Nevada higher ed, suffered a series of devastating budget cuts that axed classes, staff and entire departments. UNLV is attempting to rebound by focusing on more STEM-oriented (science, technology, engineering, math) course offerings, but its priority has been opening a school of medicine. With $26 million in startup funds budgeted, the school is working toward admitting its first class in 2017.

“The medical school is important to the university, important to Southern Nevada, important to the whole state,” UNLV acting President Don Snyder said at the LVGEA panel. “We connect the university to our economy.” To that end, UNLV has added new minors in Information Technology and Unmanned Aircraft Systems, and will launch a new Urban Leadership master’s program, geared toward training principals and school administrators—whose graduates would theoretically boost the state’s K-12 system.

Skancke says UNLV’s moves are responsive to current economic demands. “From our point of view on economic development, having a medical school here in Las Vegas is critical to be globally competitive. They bring lots of research and research faculty [into the state]. … And tech corporations [looking to relocate will] ask about training, programs and if people can get certifications.”

Like UNLV, Nevada State College—our region’s only other accredited four-year institution—is also shifting toward developing programs that will support both our students and our state. “We’re focusing on health care-related degrees, on technology-related degrees,” NSC President Bart Patterson says. “We need to be an economic driver of the state [and] graduate more students in key fields.” Earlier this year, NSC broke ground on an academic building and student center to accommodate its growing enrollment, which has gone from less than 200 students in 2002 to more than 3,000 today—although the fact that the construction was supported by increased student fees has led to some controversy. (College tuition has risen across the nation, and Nevada’s is generally slightly higher than neighboring states, but slightly lower than the national average.)

As far back as 2008, the Institute for Higher Education Policy warned that Nevada “must make a significant investment in promoting a college-going culture,” because “unlike many jobs in the gaming and hospitality industries, the higher-wage jobs in the new knowledge-based economy require significantly more postsecondary education.” Six years later, Nevada’s institutions of higher learning finally seem to be taking that directive seriously.

“Systemically, I think we can do a better job of funding education in our state,” Skancke says. “It needs to be a priority even in tough economic times. We cannot negotiate with the future of our children.”

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