The real danger

We’re not getting our money’s worth from NSHE

By Patrick R. Gibbons
  • Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Jim Rogers took aim at Gov. Gibbons this weekend for his position against raising taxes. Rogers, like many others, considers "no new taxes" a dangerous ideology. However, he—and they—are looking at the wrong issue.

Gov. Gibbons has his faults, but ideology isn't one of them. The Gibbons administration's mistake was to frame the debate in a way that gave an advantage to tax hikers like Rogers. The Gibbons administration accepted inflated budget figures that suggested the state needed 40 percent more money than it would collect in tax revenue. Basically, the administration took one budget shortfall and added atop it another shortfall as it requested 20 percent higher spending.

In reality, the governor's proposed budget won't actually devastate higher education, let alone the state: A 1 percent decline in state spending is no catastrophe.

The real problem for higher education in Nevada is not funding. State appropriations for higher education have grown at a rate more than three times greater than the annual rate of inflation. In fact, between FY 2001 and FY 2008, inflation-adjusted general fund appropriations per student rose from $8,441 to $10,190. That's an increase of $1,749 per student. According to the latest report of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability, "Trends in College Spending," Nevada's flagship universities enjoy the 18th highest education spending level per full-time student in the country.

But what have been the results of this "investment" in higher education? It appears that the Nevada System of Higher Education is adding only modest value to the state: Graduation rates are still dismal.

The University of Nevada, Reno graduates just 48 percent of its students within six years. Of them, only 37 percent of African Americans and 41 percent of Hispanics will graduate within six years.

The situation is worse at UNLV, where just 41 percent of students will graduate within six years. Of them, only 32 percent of African Americans and 37 percent of Hispanics will graduate within six years.

How can Rogers demand more money when more than half of the flagship schools' students do not graduate? What service, if any, is being done for students when their chance of graduating is small, but their guarantee of significant student debt is 100 percent?

A desire to protect Nevadans from ever-higher taxes is not a devastating "ideology." But demanding we increase government spending with absolutely no accountability and no improvement in service to the people who pay the freight is a thoroughly dangerous mentality.

The Nevada System of Higher Education has graduation rates that resemble a RICO indictment. The system appears to be recruiting students who stand little chance of graduating—then treating them as little more than a funding source for Ph.D.-ready jobs.

NSHE and its leaders need to get radically innovative, actually educate students and improve graduation rates. Until then, the system is robbing the poor to pay the Ph.D.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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