Las Vegas Sun

April 24, 2014

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Some thoughts on the state of higher education

Dear Jim Rogers,

Today in Reno and Friday in Las Vegas you are scheduled to give your thoughts on the state of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

As the chancellor overseeing Nevada's eight institutions of higher learning, you have plenty of advisers. Still, we'd like to give you some thoughts of our own.

All of the major institutions - UNLV, UNR, Nevada State College and the Community College of Southern Nevada - as well as the 13 elected regents, are functioning as one cohesive whole. That could not be said when you persuaded regents to let you take the reins in May 2004.

Your no-nonsense, shoot-from-the-hip business style is too brusque for some in the slow-moving, intellectually nuanced world of academia, but has helped raise awareness for higher education's needs among state lawmakers and business leaders.

In the 2005 session, you managed to persuade a fiscally conservative state Legislature to fund an unprecedented $200 million for construction. We expect that today you'll be telling us how you plan to repeat that feat in 2007, including persuading lawmakers to allocate $300 million to expand the University of Nevada School of Medicine, begin a school of pharmacy and increase nursing enrollment throughout the state.

We also expect you to talk about plans to expand research at UNLV, to address funding inequities at CCSN and to pitch more ideas about how higher education can help the school districts in Clark and Washoe counties better prepare students for college.

These are undeniably worthy pursuits, but they all come with hefty price tags that will not likely be covered in the 2007 Legislature. So, Chancellor Rogers: Show us the money.

As you've said many times over, great universities are not built on the backs of taxpayers, but through the voluntary giving of citizen donors. If the state is to invest $300 million in health sciences this session, taxpayers will demand that it be supported by private investments. And we are talking about cash that will get this project off the ground now, not pledges or bequests that may not convert to cash for 10 to 15 years.

The same holds true for improving research at UNLV. It needs to better recruit scholars and graduate students who are already involved in cutting-edge work - scholars such as engineering professor Biswajit Das, who has received government grants and private contracts to research how to mass-manufacture nanoelectronics. If he is successful, both UNLV and the state of Nevada could benefit tremendously.

Recruiting and keeping scholars such as Das take money, and so far UNLV's "Invent the Future" campaign has failed to show tangible results in this area. The state's universities need to demonstrate to lawmakers how investing in research will help diversify the state's economy by creating new technologies and preparing a more educated workforce.

And if UNLV is to become more than the University of Never Leave Vegas in the eyes of locals, you will need to draw Nevada State College into the limelight. The expansion of this mid-tier college is essential to educating the state's future professionals, particularly in teaching and nursing. UNLV needs to take the hard step of limiting its enrollment in order to better educate the students it already has. And to do that, Nevada State must become the primary academic avenue for students pursuing bachelor's degrees.

But four years after it opened its doors, the college is still relegated to a renovated warehouse that once stored vitamins, as well as rented space in downtown Henderson and shared classrooms with the state's community colleges. Its first liberal arts building has dwindled to 40 percent of its original size because of increased construction costs, and its nursing building may not receive funding this session. Nevada State's basic space needs are often trumped by more visible causes at UNLV and UNR.

The loftier goal of turning UNLV into a research institution, of course, pales to the more immediate need to increase student retention and graduation rates. The Millennium Scholarship has increased the number of students going to college, but only 45 percent will earn a bachelor's degree within six years.

The No. 1 student complaint is the lack of advisers to counsel them on such basics as what classes they need. And there certainly are not enough advisers to identify and reach out to students who may need more help. At UNLV in particular, student services are notoriously bad, and low-income and minority students are often the first to fall through the cracks.

Even with Nevada's low tuition, the state's financial aid is insufficient, leaving most students balancing class work with full-time jobs. When schedules conflict, school work suffers. Both the state and the student would be better served by advancing students more quickly through their degree program - and that requires greater financial aid.

Perhaps the toughest job facing Nevada higher education officials is convincing students, parents and taxpayers that college is in their best interest, and that college-preparation classes in high school benefit even those students who plan to go directly into the workplace. We applaud the partnerships being worked on with local school districts, from inviting elementary-age students to tour college campuses to offering remedial classes during a student's senior year of high school.

But more needs to be done.

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