Michael Richards has been at the helm of the College of Southern Nevada for four years, and although he has seen his state funding shrink by about 23 percent—at the same time when demand for his product (until last year) steadily rose—he remains optimistic about the direction CSN is headed and the role it plays in our community. As the leader of the state’s largest two-year institution, he oversees three campuses and a unique population of more than 38,000 students, each with widely varying goals and definitions of success—everything from finishing high school to completing a two-year associate’s degree (in order to transfer to a four-year institution) to taking a couple of cooking classes.
Richards’ own life experiences have been just as diverse. He served in the Air Force, closing bases in Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War, before moving on to teaching at the U.S. Air Force Academy, followed by a 23-year stint as an associate provost at Southern Utah University. While a gloomy tenor continues to hover over Nevada’s educational standing (at all levels), Richards, 65, is garrulous and enthusiastic as he discusses CSN’s positive impact, including how it’s helping the Valley grow and diversify.
At CSN, you take all comers with a GED or high-school diploma. How does that translate to graduation success down the road?
We are so unique in the way we serve students that talking about attrition rates in our institution is meaningless. Because we’ll have students attend the institution, stop after a semester, get a job, then they’ll come back to us a couple of years later because they want a promotion [from that] job, and they’ll take some more classes.
What are some of CSN’s more popular programs that people may not know about?
Our HVAC [heating, ventilation and air-conditioning] program is affiliated with a number of businesses here in town, and we get almost 100 percent job placement for graduates from that program. And it operates in partnership with Foothill High School in Henderson, so students can take courses over on our Henderson campus while they are still in high school.
Another is our culinary program over at the Cheyenne campus, which is world-class. What you encounter there is symptomatic of what student success means, because a student can take two culinary classes and get a job as a sous chef. Now many of them take more than two classes, but it’s about a two-class minimum. We don’t give them a certificate unless they complete the requirements for a certificate—same thing for a degree. But along the way, those people have got a job and they’re happy, and for us that is student success. For the state, in terms of policy, that’s not student success.
You also offer the CSN High School program, which gives students the opportunity to accelerate their education while also earning college credit. How does it work?
Students in their junior year of high school can enter our program, and over the next two years they can complete their high school diploma, while those who are motivated will complete an associate’s degree before they are out of high school.
Has it been successful?
It has a [nearly] 100 percent graduation rate, and about 10 percent of graduating seniors finish with their associate’s degree. We have an annual enrollment of around 400 students total for all three campuses. If we were really smart with our investments as taxpayers in this state, we’d increase the size of this program 10 times. It is just that successful.
Community colleges have long been perceived as lesser institutions, the stigma being that the quality of education isn’t nearly as good as that of a four-year university. How do you fight those perceptions?
You try to demonstrate program quality, and one way we’ve done that is [through] specialized accreditation where that accreditation is available. We have specialized accreditation in 30 programs; we have 34 that are eligible. For example, over in culinary, it is not only a good program, but it’s accredited by the American Culinary Federation. Our engineering and technology program is accredited through the Technology Accreditation Commission of ABET, and this is in addition to [regional] higher-education accreditation that we have.
We’re also trying to dispel a lot of [myths] about community colleges through [improved] marketing. [CSN] is a great place to start, because we are so affordable. Get your two years here, get your associate’s degree, and then transfer to any four-year institution you want. And the data show that students who do that perform better at the four-year institutions than native students at those institutions.
What advantages are there for a community college operating in Southern Nevada?
We prize our relationship with businesses in the community. We have the Division of Workforce and Economic Development. We provide English as a second language training, we provide a lot of basic education [and] we offer a free GED prep course. We also provide customized training for businesses and industry. So if a business would say, “We’d love to come into Nevada, but we’ve got to have some trained people who can assemble widgets,” that particular division can respond very, very quickly to provide either credit or non-credit training for prospective employees for assembling widgets.
It is a terrific program for businesses and industries, because it’s so flexible and nimble and it’s uncommonly successful, so we get a number of grants to support that training, and we get a number of education agreements with businesses to provide the customized services they need. And it doesn’t cost the taxpayer anything. It’s supported by business and grants.
These days, a lot of higher-education institutions are increasing their online offerings, including CSN. Do you anticipate adding more?
I don’t know if we will, because we already offer about 900 courses [each semester] and about 30 complete programs. You could sit in your closet and earn your associate’s degree.