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July 31, 2014

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HIGHER EDUCATION:

Legislative committee adopts new higher education funding formula

Proposal shifts money to Southern Nevada campuses; committee recommends implementing plan immediately

After making some revisions, a Legislative committee agreed to adopt a funding formula proposed by the Nevada System of Higher Education that will shift $13.2 million a year to Southern Nevada campuses.

On Wednesday, the committee adjusted some of the weights given to classes that will help determine funding levels, based on the recommendations from its consultant, SRI International. Those recommendations gave greater weight to classes such as upper level math and science classes.

But in general, the committee embraced the formula implemented by the Board of Regents last Friday that was based on a formula used by the higher education system, which hired its own consultant to help it with its work.

The Legislative Committee to Study the Funding of Higher Education pressed Gov. Brian Sandoval to put together a balanced budget that includes $26.4 million over two years to offset cuts to rural college campuses. By one legislator’s estimate, the shifting of more money to Southern Nevada would cost some rural colleges about a third of their budgets.

The system had asked for an additional $10 million from the governor and Legislature.

There’s agreement between higher education officials and lawmakers on some funding issues, including shifting away from a funding formula based on classroom enrollment in favor of one that takes into account the completion of college courses. They also agree that campuses should be allowed to keep the tuition paid by their students versus having to pool the tuition statewide and have it be reallocated by legislators.

The hard part for politicians and regents in adopting a reformed funding formula boils down to who will benefit from the shifting budget priorities and at what expense to other campuses.

A tentative budget passed by the Board of Regents last Friday would shift $13.2 million, primarily from rural campuses, to the College of Southern Nevada, Nevada State College and UNLV. There would be a slight decrease at UNR but bigger hits to the community colleges in Northern and rural Nevada — Truckee Meadows Community College, Western Nevada College and Great Basin College.

Under the system’s proposal, the new formula would be phased in.

The committee, chaired by Sen. Majority Leader Steven Horsford, recommended implementing a new formula right away, funded with money that needs to be found in the stressed state budget.

But Heidi Gansert, Sandoval’s outgoing chief of staff and a member of the Committee to Study the Funding of Higher Education, said she didn’t know where the money could be found. The governor’s office is preparing its budget proposal now.

Sandoval has said he would support extending taxes passed in 2011 and set to expire in 2013 but would not raise them further. He also has promised not to cut education.

Assemblyman Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, said that the funding formula proposed by the Nevada System of Higher Education would decimate rural community colleges and force those students elsewhere.

“I won’t vote for a budget that funds higher education with that formula in there,” he said. “It’s an unfair formula.”

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, a committee member, said the committee’s recommendation should not be misinterpreted as an additional request for money.

“It’s a statement by this committee that it’s concerned about the sizable fiscal hit community colleges are taking under the new formula,” Kieckhefer said Thursday. “They need to be given some time to adapt to this significant drop in funding. ... This was not, by any stretch, a statement that we need to shove a whole bunch more money into higher education.”

The meeting was often heated, highlightng north-versus-south and rural-versus-urban tensions.

“I feel their pain. No one wants competition between north and south,” said Dick McGee, a professor at the College of Southern Nevada.

But, he said, CSN has been under-funded for years.

“We have problems too, and we have had them forever,” he said. With the new formulas, “it looks like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Horsford started the meeting by criticizing the Nevada System of Higher Education for hiring its own consultant to work on the formula while the committee met.

The committee on Wednesday delved into the weeds of the funding formula, reviewing a report from SRI International about how other states weight their college courses as a criteria in funding.

While the Nevada System of Higher Education’s formula would send millions more to Southern Nevada institutions, Horsford tried, and failed, to push for some changes that would have shifted even more money.

Horsford also criticized the higher education formula for including operations and maintenance money for research facilities. He said that the current formula benefits UNR, which has the state’s medical school, while not considering research space in other fields, such as hospitality. Instead, he suggested that researchers compete for funding. The committee made no recommendation on the issue.

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