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April 17, 2014

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HIGHER EDUCATION:

To what degree does college help the public?

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Sam Morris

Dan Klaich, Nevada System of Higher Education chancellor, talks to UNLV students during a protest of proposed budget cuts Feb. 9.

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Dan Klaich faces a huge marketing challenge as chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

He’s trying to persuade the Legislature to protect public colleges and universities from the worst of the cuts being proposed by Gov. Jim Gibbons, and convince Nevadans that his organization is essential to the state’s future.

At first blush, it wouldn’t seem to be a difficult task. What’s not to appreciate about higher education?

John Immerwahr, a philosophy professor at Pennsylvania’s Villanova University who co-wrote a recent study of Americans’ perceptions of higher education, says there’s plenty of evidence that people see value in an advanced degree.

But ...

“When you start to ask questions about who should pay for it, that’s where the controversy comes in,” says Immerwahr, also a senior research fellow at Public Agenda, a national nonprofit organization. “People see higher education as an individual good — something you need for yourself.”

That’s a familiar refrain to Klaich, and one he refuses to accept.

“Every fiber in my being is absolutely opposed to that philosophy,” Klaich says. “That assumes there is no public good in an educated populace.”

He lays out the facts to support his argument: the more educated the population, the less reliance on social services. Such people are more involved in their communities. And they tend to be more highly paid.

Klaich knows it. He assumes the 63 members of Nevada’s Legislature know it.

But so far, the state’s populace has yet “to embrace the transformative value of higher education in a way that could bubble up to those 63 people,” Klaich says. “That’s partly our fault, and it’s partly a reflection of who we are as a state.”

Although Klaich says he hears from lawmakers that they want to support higher ed, especially going into the special session, he knows there is harsh political reality, as well.

“How can someone expect to get elected and continue to get re-elected to office if they’re not reflecting the underlying values of the electorate?” Klaich says.

Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson, chairwoman of the Legislative Education Committee, said Klaich is effectively pushing his message by defining “the system” as, in fact, thousands of individuals — students, faculty and staff — who will bear the brunt of the fallout.

“We have students counting on us to get their degrees and move ahead with their lives. We have people who have lost their jobs who need access to community college programs to retool their skills,” Woodhouse said. “We’re talking about their future, and our future.”

Nationally, higher education is perceived as a business more worried about the bottom line than about students, and that a better job could be done managing the money it already receives, Immerwahr said. Even as college presidents argue that funding shortages will mean less access and deteriorating quality, “the public isn’t buying that and a lot of legislators aren’t buying that,” Immerwahr says. “They believe higher ed will find a way.”

The system’s funding has been cut by 13.4 percent — $91.3 million — from what was authorized by the Legislature. Klaich has been told by Gibbons to prepare for funding cuts of up to 22 percent on top of that — more than

$110 million. Those figures are likely to change, and could even increase, following the Legislature’s special session this week to address a revenue deficit of $887 million.

The proposed cuts are another blow to an education system that by many measures is struggling:

• Compared with other states, Nevada ranks poorly in high school graduation and dropout rates, college completion rates and overall funding for public education.

• In its most recent report card, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education gave Nevada dismal marks in key areas including preparation, participation, affordability and completion.

• Nevada ranks 45th in the nation for the percentage of its population (older than 25) who have at least a bachelor’s degree.

For the better part of the decade, Southern Nevada led the nation in population growth, attracting millions of people for relatively well-paying jobs that did not require much more than a high school education. Now, some of the same factors that made the boom so lucrative — such as tourism and construction — are making the bust even more pronounced.

“They were the engines of the growth, and now they’re the brakes,” says Robert Lang, director of Brookings Mountain West, a research and policy initiative partnership between the nonpartisan think tank and UNLV.

Brookings has identified Las Vegas, Phoenix and Boise as three of the most economically troubled metropolitan areas in the nation. At the same time, cities with more educated workforces — such as Denver and Colorado Springs, Colo. — have weathered the recession “significantly better than other Mountain metros on almost every measure,” according to the December Brookings report.

It won’t be easy for Nevada to recast itself, Lang said. But higher education could become a key growth industry, particularly if UNLV builds on its recent successes in expanding its research base.

Green energy, biotechnology and health care are targets in Nevada’s efforts to diversify. To attract those employers, Nevada will need a bigger carrot than a business-friendly tax structure, says Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a Washington-based nonpartisan think tank.

When governors travel to other states to recruit businesses, “the talk quickly turns to education,” Callan says. “It used to be low taxes were used to try and persuade employers to relocate and offer good jobs. Now it’s, ‘Do you have people who have the knowledge to do the work we need?’ That means going beyond high school to two- and four-year degrees.”

That doesn’t mean Nevada has to abandon its roots, Callan says.

“Certainly we all hope construction and gaming get back on their feet,” Callan says. “But the new jobs, and the jobs that are going to pay well, are going to come from the knowledge-based industries.”

Numerous states are coming to similar conclusions, including several that appear to be moving more quickly than Nevada.

“It may well be that the places that are a little hungrier are going to succeed more than the ones that wait for it to come to them,” Callan says.

Indeed, it’s a challenge that pits not just state against state, but the nation against the world.

“The whole country is going to have to figure out if we’re ready for the highly competitive global environment,” Callan says. “Americans don’t have the entitlement to most of the good jobs or most of the prosperity. Eight or nine other countries are overtaking us when it comes to college access. We used to be first in every area you could measure.”

And into this fray steps Klaich, who at this point isn’t sure whether he’ll be able to keep open all of higher ed’s doors, let alone diversify its programs and services to meet the challenges that await.

He meets regularly with presidents of the system’s colleges and universities to discuss the latest budget cut estimates and what those numbers might mean for individual campuses. He testifies before legislative committees about the effects of further cuts. He attends town-hall meetings and student-organized protest rallies. And last week he introduced a new page to the higher education system’s Web site, with the biting title “Building a New Nevada — Destroying Dreams, Deferring Futures,” in which students recount the difference higher education has made in their lives and just how much they — and Nevada — stand to lose.

“I’m supposed to be running this system and managing it through this crisis, but everything I’m doing is making the state’s problems worse,” Klaich says.

“We should be producing more graduates ready for high-paying jobs. We should be helping to diversify the state’s economic base. Instead, we’re going the opposite way. The cure is worse than the disease.”

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