Contract buyouts at colleges, universities surged to $1.1 million last year amid pandemic budget cuts

The money spent by Nevada colleges and universities on contract buyouts and settlements ballooned to more than $1.1 million last year, up from roughly $713,000 in 2019 or an increase of more than 54 percent, according to a report presented Thursday during the Board of Regents quarterly meeting. 

Though the total is still far below the pre-2018 average of $4.4 million, NSHE Chief General Counsel Joe Reynolds told regents that roughly half of those 2020 payments stemmed from voluntary buyouts offered as part of the pandemic-related budget cutting process. 

“[Institution presidents] have to do a cost benefit analysis of whether eliminating a particular position, even though it will result in a short term cost, may result in a long term savings,” Reynolds said. 

Still, some regents grilled Reynolds on a lack of specificity in the buyout report and called for more details on how buyout decisions were made and for what positions, especially amid the pandemic budget crunch. 

“Recognizing that there are about 20,000 employees in the system, and these buyouts and settlements are definitely a cost of doing this,” Regent Carol Del Carlo said. “But as we all know, we've got very limited resources, especially with the pandemic that's happened, so I really think we need to really look at this policy.”

These payments varied widely from institution to institution, with the College of Southern Nevada and Nevada State College reporting no such buyouts, while Truckee Meadows Community College reported nearly $544,000 in payments. 

The report noted nine of those 13 payments stemmed from “budget savings reorganization,” and TMCC President Karin Hilgersom told regents that those buyouts came largely as a result of “key recommendations” from an internal budget reduction task force. 

Other large buyouts were also reported at Western Nevada College ($196,000) and Great Basin College ($184,000), both increases from the year prior. Buyout payments generally fell elsewhere, including both at UNLV ($90,000) and UNR ($53,000).

Below are some additional highlights from the Board of Regents’ two-day quarterly meeting. 

Budget talks remain priority as legislative session continues

Concerns over the long term effects of a planned 12 percent budget cut through the next two fiscal years continued to permeate higher education policy discussions this week during the board’s two-day meeting. 

System Chancellor Melody Rose and Chief Financial Officer Andrew Clinger have for weeks been briefing legislative committees on system priorities, as legislators look to navigate the economic fallout of pandemic-related shutdowns.  

But amid a handful of other higher education-related bills in the works, Regent Jason Geddes said the budget remained “first and foremost.”

Pointing to the gradual phase in and phase out of federal coronavirus relief money over the next two years, Geddes asked Clinger to “smooth out” the cuts throughout the process, such that “when we go into the 2023 session, we’re in a better place” than following the Great Recession. 

Regents and some faculty speakers raised concerns over planned cuts to the long term disability insurance as part of the state’s public employee benefits program. 

In calling for those cuts to be rolled back and for disability insurance to be restored, the Nevada Faculty Alliance criticized cuts in part for shifting costs away from the state and “to the most vulnerable employees.” 

Regents signaled interest in the question of long-term disability insurance, with Regent Joseph Arrascada asking that the board examine a formal measure in support of the restoration of those proposed cuts. 

Community College governance changes remain on the horizon

Few new details were made available this week on expected legislation that would seek to split the state’s four community colleges off from NSHE, though Clinger told regents that Gov. Steve Sisolak is expected to meet with system stakeholders by the end of next week. 

The governor announced during his State of the State address in January that he would seek to direct NSHE and lawmakers to explore a separate governance structure for the state’s four community colleges. 

But with just 10 days before a legislative deadline to introduce bills, few details have emerged on what such a structure may look like or what it would seek to accomplish. 

Some regents have openly defended the existing single-board system, with at least a handful of such defenses arising during Thursday’s meeting.

During a presentation of an audit of six years of transfers that showed community college transfer compliance — or that transfers between two and four year institutions saw little to no credit losses — jumped to more than 95 percent in 2019, up from just 76 percent in 2018, NSHE Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affair Crystal Abba said the audit “exemplified the benefits of a unified system.”  

“I think it would just be extremely difficult and probably impossible from the standpoint that, in my role as the vice chancellor, the beauty of the pressure that I was able to apply was that I can apply it to both sides of the equation, the two year institutions and the four years,” Abba said, when asked how difficult work on transfer issues would have been without a unified system. “If you split the equation, I'm only going to be able to work on my half.”

As regents questioned Abba on the audit, Regent Amy Carvalho pointed to statistics that show that many transfer students nationwide who attended community college and ultimately graduated with a bachelor's degree were women or underserved groups, noting ultimately that transfer were “exactly where we need to focus our efforts.” 

“That's why it's so important to have one system that includes our community colleges and our four year institutions so that we provide higher education for all of the students of Nevada, including our women and our underserved population,” Carvalho said.   

Renown Health, UNR Medical School draw close to finalizing major partnership agreement

A major deal that would link the UNR School of Medicine and Reno-based health care provider Renown Health is nearing completion, according to a presentation Friday by medical school Dean Thomas Schwenk and Renown CEO Tony Slonim. 

The partnership — which was billed as “near-final” by Schwenk — would integrate “clinical teaching, clinical research and clinical practice components” between the two institutions over the course of a 50-year-long agreement. 

Among other changes, Schwenk described a “long term vision in which academic leadership of our departments and clinical leadership of service lines and medical services” would “come together.” Notably, the agreement would also appoint the UNR president to Renown’s board, where they would serve as a voting, ex-officio member of the board. 

The deal would be the first of its kind in the state, though there remain a handful of outstanding constitutional issues, namely the ultimate control of the program by the regents, rather than by a private entity like Renown. 

In addressing the legal questions of such an agreement, NSHE Chief General Counsel Joe Reynolds told the board that he recommended formal legislation amending state law governing the board’s duties, such that the agreement remains in lock-step with duties outlined by the state Constitution.

That legislation has yet to be introduced in Carson City, and Reynolds told the board he recommended any vote on the final agreement be made only after lawmakers had a chance to address the issue legislatively, first. 

Even so, regents and officials from UNR and Renown praised the proposal, calling it “transformational” for the region's medical care. 

“I continue to be bullishly supportive and excited about the opportunities associated with this affiliation,” UNR President Brian Sandoval said. “I think it'll be transformational for healthcare, education and services in northern Nevada.”

Slonim said that the agreed-upon language should be voted upon by Renown board’s finance committee on March 30 before heading to the full Renown board on April 6. Once approved, it must also receive approval from the Board of Regents before becoming effective. 

Lawmakers weigh eligibility changes for popular college scholarship programs; questions loom over future funding

Students at UNR's Joe Crowley Student Union

Nestled into Gov. Steve Sisolak’s proclamation calling state lawmakers into a special session dealing with a $1.2 billion budget shortfall was a line item decidedly not cuts-related: changing eligibility for the popular Millennium Scholarship program.

Members of the state Senate took a break from budget discussions on Friday morning to discuss and flesh out that proposal — now in the form of SB2 — which Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) leaders say will prevent more than 2,200 students from losing their scholarship eligibility.

NSHE deputy chancellor Crystal Abba told lawmakers via video conference that the system expected the bill to benefit about 12 percent of scholarship recipients from the spring 2020 semester whose grade point average fell below normal GPA requirements. While NSHE has not done a complete look at individual cases, Abba said the higher education system did not want to punish students who faced massive social and financial disruption during the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“As each student faced a variety of challenges that may have impacted their eligibility, the waiver option that will effectively hold students harmless for Spring 2020 is a reasonable step that will allow NSHE to quickly process eligibility updates as they are requested, without delay, for those students who want to move forward in the fall and receive their Millenium Scholarship,” she said.

The bill, SB2, authorizes the Board of Regents to adopt changes to eligibility for the scholarship program and doesn’t list any specific changes to eligibility to the program.

Although the regents would need to adopt regulations first (likely at their Aug. 7 meeting), Abba said the system’s initial proposal would require students to fill out an online form at some point through the rest of the calendar year indicating that they had been negatively affected by the pandemic and thus hold harmless their per-semester eligibility for the program.

As the scholarship system is currently set up, college students need to achieve a minimum 2.75 GPA every semester (after completing 30 college credits) to continue receiving the scholarship. If they fall below the requirement for two semesters, they’re automatically booted from the program.

But lawmakers expressed some skepticism regarding requiring students to actively fill out a form to receive the waiver, saying it would be better for the system to just issue a blanket waiver for the 2,200 affected students rather than run the risk of excluding an affected student who did not fill out the waiver.

“If there is evidence to suggest that these students were affected negatively, then I don't see a reason why you want to necessarily push them into filling out a form,” Republican Sen. Keith Pickard said. “My fear is that the one person who is trying to find work or something, and they missed it, now they lose that eligibility simply because they didn't see the notice.”

The bill would not come without a cost; Abba estimated that at the high-end, it would be between $2.1 to $2.6 million dollars, but that would vary depending on what institutions the affected students attend and when they apply for the scholarship.

That could be a problem given that part of Sisolak’s proposal to fill the state’s budget gap is to transfer $2 million from the scholarship fund’s reserve account.

Lawmakers were previously told that as it stands, the scholarship fund should have enough dollars left in it to make it through the end of the fiscal year, and that it can tap into other state funds to make up any shortfalls. 

But the scholarship fund will be empty at the end of the fiscal year, again raising the question of how lawmakers plan to find a permanent funding source for the highly popular student aide program outside of annual appropriations.

The program is funded through a combination of money in the state’s unclaimed property fund, general budget fund dollars and the state’s share of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement from the late ‘90s — the original funding source for the program.

State Treasurer Zach Conine, whose office oversees the program, has previously said funding for the scholarship program was “fundamentally insolvent” and proposed an ultimately unsuccessful bill in the 2019 Legislature that would have created a permanent endowment fund.

Conine said on Friday that lawmakers will have to face those funding questions for the program in the regular 2021 legislative session. Although it may come with a substantial price tag — Conine’s office estimated it may see up to a $72 million shortfall by 2023 — Abba said it was worth keeping around if possible.

“It is very challenging financially to sustain this program,” she said. “However, in terms of the state-supported financial aid programs, because of its longevity, it is the one I think that most parents and students throughout the state are aware of, so it is certainly an asset to the system and asset to the state overall.”

Nevada colleges want to raise their graduation rate; now they're giving themselves deadlines

The Nevada System of Higher Education is renewing its focus on what might seem like a few simple goals — making sure that students who enter its doors one semester come back the next and that they cross the graduation stage in their caps and gowns within a reasonable period of time.

It seems like an obvious proposition, but in a state with university graduation rates 11 percentage points behind the national average — and community college graduation rates 9 percentage points behind — Nevada administrators have been coming to terms with the fact that some of the ways they’re doing things now don’t support those goals.

“In many cases, in strategic plans over the last couple years, surprisingly student success initiatives hadn't been at the forefront,” Chancellor Thom Reilly told The Nevada Independent. “This is what we're about at the end of the day. We need to graduate students. They need to have a successful experience. This should be where we're putting our priorities, including our resources.”

Research underscores the importance of completing college and earning a degree or certificate rather than simply attending it. People with “some college” are sometimes at more of a disadvantage than those with no college at all if they went into debt to accomplish it.

The system took a step toward refocusing on graduation when it redesigned its funding formula in 2013, giving colleges money based on how many courses students successfully complete rather than simply paying them based on the number of students who enroll.

Presidents of Nevada colleges presented specific goals for graduation and persistence rate growth by 2025 and heard success stories from other parts of the country at an all-day Board of Regents summit last month.

College of Southern Nevada President Federico Zaragoza told regents he wants to raise CSN’s 3-year graduation rate from 7 percent to 17.5 percent by 2025, for example, and wants to invest $4 million into advising roles to reduce an adviser-to-student ratio to 350:1.

Truckee Meadows Community College President Karin Hilgersom, on the other hand, shared that she wants to raise her college’s 30.4 percent graduation rate to 33.3 percent by 2025,

On Thursday, Reilly will make his own presentation to the board about progress of the initiatives. Although institutions have set goals in the past, Reilly said the practice has been inconsistent and the board has not held colleges accountable for progress toward them.

“The adoption of the 2025 goals is actually the first time the board has specifically adopted graduation student success goals and year to year persistence rates,” Reilly said. “I think that just underscores the seriousness that the board is taking and I'm taking as chancellor with the institutions. We really want to see movement.”

Below are some of the strategies NSHE is exploring to raise the bar.

Nevada State College Professor Dr. Roberta Colleen Brack Kaufman, left, talks to students during a Parent Involvement in Special and General Education class on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Rethinking remediation

Reilly didn’t mince words when he spoke with lawmakers last week about the ways the state is currently trying to get students college-ready.

“Remedial education is a failure. It’s a failure in Nevada, and it’s a failure nationally,” he said.

About half of the students who enter NSHE institutions need to take high-school level courses at college to get up to speed. Those classes are not covered by Nevada financial aid such as the Millennium Scholarship or Silver State Opportunity Grant.

But they also serve as an often-insurmountable barrier to students moving forward in their college career. Students often stall out and leave college before ever taking a college-level course. Remediation eats up valuable time and money, and its been found to be a primary cause — rather than a solution — for race-based achievement gaps.

Data presented at the January summit by Complete College America, an initiative focused on raising college graduation rates, shows that only 23 percent of white students who are placed into community college remedial classes will have completed any college-level math or English classes in the next two years. For African-American students, that number is 11 percent.

“I don't know why we'd continue with a model that nationally has proven to be a failure, and our own data supports that,” Reilly said, noting that minority students are overrepresented in what can be dead-end classes. “In some cases, a waste of time. It's overpopulated with poor kids, black kids, and Hispanic kids. Once you put them down that remedial path, even when they're remediated, they don't go on.”

Other schools have found success with a “co-requisite” model. Instead of imposing barriers before students get to a college-level course, they place the student in a college-level “gateway” course and then mandate tutoring and other academic supports to help them succeed.

“Putting weak students with weak students is not a recipe for success,” Reilly said. “Placing them from day one in courses that leads toward a degree and requiring tutoring perhaps around any type of remedial needs is a much more productive model.”

States that have adopted the model are seeing success in the number of students who complete gateway courses — a strong predictor of who will eventually graduate. Nationally, 22 percent of students in remedial education will complete a gateway course within 2 years, while Tennessee found that 64 percent of students with corequisite support completed a gateway English course and 61 percent completed a gateway math course, according to Complete College America.

Reilly said it’s time to pull the trigger on the model.

“For the past 10 years, [NSHE] has talked in some respect about some kind of co-requisite model,” Reilly said. “I really want to push the board and push the presidents that we make that leap. I think there is no dispute anymore that remedial education at the community college level and at the university level is a failure.”

If the board adopts a policy for co-requisite education in June, Reilly said it will probably be mandated by the fall of 2020.

He thinks it can be done with a shift in resources — professors teaching remedial classes can move to teaching college-level courses or being part of a ramped-up tutoring operation.

Joanna Kepka, left, Ph.D Assistant Professor in Residence Honors College UNLV, and Honors College student Ingrid Z‡rate Albarr‡n talk on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Mandatory advising

Representatives from schools that Nevada sees as a model for high graduation rates attested at the summit to the power of advising students — everything from helping them pick a viable career path to challenging them to take a heavier courseload to steering them away from taking classes that don’t serve the student’s academic goals.

Nevada colleges don’t currently require students use the services of an adviser, but system leaders are looking to change that.

“The mandatory advising, without question, is key,” Reilly said. “Part of this, from the board, is sending a [message] that advising is a priority. So as you build your budgets, as you talk about resources, as you prioritize resources, advising needs to be at the forefront.”

The need is even more acute in the Nevada higher ed system because half of the students are part-time — a status that greatly reduces their chances of graduating in a timely fashion. Forty-one percent of full-time students at UNLV graduate within six years, while only 13 percent of part-time students do.

At CSN, 7 percent of full-time students graduate within three years of starting. For part-time students, only 4.5 percent of students complete their program within six years.

“If any student is needing mandatory advising, I think it's the part time student. Putting that student on a pathway to ensure they are clear of what courses they need to take in order to obtain a certificate or degree is really paramount.”

The system hopes it can improve that rate with more hands-on guidance and a few technology upgrades. One tool that CSN is already adopting is Starfish — an online platform that connects students, advisers and faculty.

Students can make appointments with faculty and advisers, set up course plans for future semesters and check their grades. Faculty can make note of potential red flags such as poor attendance or academic struggles that alert an adviser to reach out and try to address the situation before a student drops out.

NSHE is also having its IT staff explore an idea that helped Georgia State University increase its number of graduates by 67 percent — a texting “bot” that helps answer student questions at all hours of the day or night.

The school developed a database of some 2,500 advising-related questions and answers, so students who texted an inquiry would get an automatic reply in seconds. A question not in the database would route to a real person.

Georgia State officials found that students are sometimes more willing to ask questions of the bot than make an appointment with a stranger to ask, for example, what to do if they have an absent father and are unable to gather information for their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Improving the success of its part-time students is key to raising the system’s overall graduation rates.

“Part-time students are the final frontier,” Crystal Abba, NSHE’s vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, said at the summit. “If we can figure that out, we can all go home.”

Reno High School students participate in a walkout as part of a national movement to urge lawmakers to take action on gun control on Wednesday, March 14, the one-month anniversary of the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Starting in high school

System officials also emphasize the need to align high school courses in Nevada with what students need to succeed in college. A lack of alignment is partly to blame for the fact that while Nevada has an 83 percent high school graduation rate, only 11 percent of high school juniors are considered “college-ready” based on their ACT scores.

“There's a disconnect in some respects of what they're teaching and what is expected when an individual enters our community college, state system, or university system,” Reilly said.

The higher education system has struck a memorandum of understanding with the Clark County School District in an effort to fix the situation. Part of the agreement involves targeting up to five high schools in the county, testing students in their sophomore or junior years, and having them take any high-school level remedial courses while they’re still in high school, Reilly said.

Professors at the colleges will also be meeting with high school teachers to try to make coursework flow better — especially for the all-important English and math classes.

“I think there's a lot more kids out there than we think that at 17, 18, 19 and 20, don't really have a clue. So they have to have that discussion.”

Reilly said he hopes to get donors on board to help with the costs of bringing student success initiatives — and not just building projects — to life. One example he cited is UNLV, which is aiming to put a price tag on strategies to increase graduation rates, then fundraise for them.

“I think that's appealing. Some individuals at some fundraisers don't want to fund capital projects, but they will fund operational issues, they will fund initiatives when it's based upon success in the past,” he said.