Higher ed chancellor, institution presidents say few pandemic-related changes in store as spring semester approaches

With the fall semester coming to a close and the spring semester approaching, Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Melody Rose praised the system’s pandemic response thus far and signaled few changes to pandemic plans already in place during a meeting of the Board of Regents Friday. 

“We are nine months into this pandemic, or so, and what was once thought to be a brief acute event has become a marathon,” Rose said. 

Though there were early concerns over spread among college and university communities — especially among students — contact tracing conducted over the last few months has shown few, if any, cases of viral transmission on campus or during in-person instruction. 

Instead, a vast majority of the spread among students and faculty has occurred off-campus, where transmission has largely ebbed and flowed with broader community spread. 

“I guess the biggest message from the fall semester as we prepare for the spring is that if you follow the protocols, they actually work,” Nevada State College President Bart Patterson said. “The complication, of course, is that students don't always follow those rules, sometimes, specifically when they’re not on campus, and so that's the big challenge that we all have.”

Across the board, presidents at the state’s colleges and universities said they would continue to operate in large part as they had in the fall, utilizing, in part, limited in-person instruction, mandatory mask-usage and expanded cleaning protocols. 

Some institutions have already planned for additional mitigation steps, especially amid some concerns that the pandemic may worsen before a vaccine becomes widely available sometime next year. 

UNR announced in October that it would cancel its spring break, citing concerns of students returning while contagious, and Truckee Meadows Community College President Karin Hilgersom said that, while still optimistic, the college remained ready to switch to “100 percent” online instruction if necessary. 

Still, as the state prepares to distribute the first wave of vaccinations this month and as hopes rise for broader vaccination through the spring, some institutions are also preparing plans to ramp up on-campus activity should conditions sufficiently improve. 

“We must be prepared to pivot to a new normal,” CSN President Federico Zaragoza said. “Thus, if the environment permits, we are also planning to significantly increase our CTE [college credit] and lab-intensive courses as part of a late spring semester … if [spring] is a different environment, it will be a game changer for us, and that I think it'll allow us to also then ramp up some of the workforce efforts that we have developed.” 

Citing technical, budget issues, NSHE chancellor recommends against approving new contract for CSN faculty

A new contract for faculty at the College of Southern Nevada appears to be on hold after system Chancellor Thom Reilly wrote in a memo Thursday to CSN President Federico Zaragoza that he could not “in good faith, and at this time” recommend that regents approve the submitted collective bargaining agreement. 

Reilly raised two concerns in his memo, chief among them a worry that the new agreement would raise costs for CSN by $1.9 million dollars at a time when the governor has declared a “period of unprecedented fiscal emergency.”

“Given these considerations, and until greater certainty is obtained regarding the State and NSHE’s budget shortfall, I cannot in good faith, and at this time, recommend that the Board agendize or approve a CBA from any NSHE institution that contains such a provision,” Reilly said.

The chancellor also questioned a technical issue in the timing of the submitted agreement, noting that the contract received by the system was drafted after the Nevada Faculty Alliance had voted on contract language. 

Such a submission would violate the system’s administrative handbook, and Reilly has requested CSN provide proof that the submitted agreement was the same document as the voted-upon contract. 

In a statement released Friday, NFA bargaining co-chairs Glynda White and Luis Ortega called Reilly’s decision “odd” and said he had “no basis” to interfere with the contract on either technical nor fiscal grounds, adding that the money was already allocated in 2017 and sits now in the school’s reserves. 

“This marks the third time in the last two years that the Chancellor has intervened to disrupt a process that both parties were agreeing upon, and leads to the impression that the chancellor’s real objection is ideological, as he has vocally expressed anti-union views in multiple publications, which we hope that the regents will see through as likely his real motive,” the statement said.

The ratification of the CSN contract earlier this month marked a major step forward for the school’s faculty and promised to narrow a pay-equity gap between faculty at CSN and its sister school, Truckee Meadows Community College, in Reno. 

Faculty had approved the 1.75 percent pay increase in large part by paying through unused funds leftover from a never-conducted pay equity study in 2017. 

At the time, NFA chapter President Staci Walters called the contract ratification “historic” and would ensure that faculty at CSN wouldn’t be shouldered with an “unfair burden” ahead of expected budget cuts. 

Details on exactly how deep the fiscal impact of the coronavirus may be remain unclear, as state and local governments continue to wait on revenue totals for the last few months of the lockdown. 

However, Gov. Steve Sisolak asked state agencies in April to plan for a handful of budget cut scenarios, including a 4 percent cut in 2020 and cuts of 6, 10 or 14 percent in 2021. 

A plan approved by the Board of Regents for cuts of that size found budget reductions between $68 and 124 million over the next two fiscal years, cuts roughly similar to those made during the depths of the 2008 financial crisis. At the most dire cut scenarios, that plan would include system-wide furloughs of 2.4 percent or 4.8 percent, amounting to six  or 12 days of furloughed time for professional staff in 2021. 

But new numbers being reported by state agencies show the damage could go beyond the 14 percent threshold requested by the governor; in declaring a state of fiscal emergency this week, Sisolak said state revenues will fall short by between $741 and $911 million for the fiscal year ending June 30 — roughly a fifth of the state’s annual budget. 

Updated 5/15/20 at 3:23 p.m. - This story was updated to include a statement on Reilly's memo from the Nevada Faculty Alliance.

Zaragoza CSN CBA by Jacob Solis on Scribd

Roundtable calls for more support staff, better data to support DREAMers in higher education

college students in a hallway

Fernando Benitez wanted to be a mechanical engineer when he started college in 2017, but after taking courses part-time for one year, found out that his undocumented status would prevent him from obtaining a license to work in that field.

“It’s really hard sometimes when you have an opportunity in front of you and you think you can get it, and you go for it and then at the end of the day, they say they need a Social Security number,” Benitez said. “Sometimes it’s hard being undocumented because you lose your hope.”

Benitez, now a student studying culinary arts at the College of Southern Nevada, shared his background and experiences with higher education on Tuesday at a roundtable with other students, administrators and presidents. The roundtable, which took place at NSHE administrative offices in Las Vegas and was moderated by Chancellor Thom Reilly, discussed how Nevada’s colleges and universities could support their Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and undocumented students.

Reilly gave a summary at the end of the roundtable acknowledging the shared goal of placing designated staff at each institution for admissions, guidance and career counseling to provide accurate information for the DACA and undocumented portion of their student bodies. DACA protects immigrants from deportation who were brought to the U.S. as children and allows them to obtain work permits. 

He added that institutions need to improve coordination with school districts so that undocumented high school students can receive college and financial aid application assistance to move onto higher education. Most scholarship applications require the student to submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which requires a Social Security Number. Because undocumented students do not have an SSN, they have fewer options for financial aid.

Nevada State College offers an alternate form for undocumented students to apply for financial aid. According to Vincent Nava, coordinator for community engagement and diversity initiatives at NSC, students who do not have citizenship or residency can apply for institutional aid via NSC’s internal financial aid application.   

“The internal financial aid application is an application that we're trying to [implement] at every institution,” Nava said. “What it does is, they ask just like FAFSA what is your family income, what do you make, how many people are in your family and they give you aid based on that. But [the internal application] aid is institutional and state-level, so it’s not coming from federal money.”

When colleges and universities have not provided these services, several nonprofits have stepped up to provide them. 

Benitez immigrated with his family to the United States from El Salvador when he was 10 years old in 2010, three years after the deadline to qualify as a DACA recipient. After adjusting to a new school and learning to speak English, Benitez said he started acting out in middle school and might have given up on an education if not for support organizations such as Leaders in Training.

The nonprofit supports first-generation college students by giving them leadership and career development opportunities. Benitez joined the organization as a freshman in high school and said it provides emotional support and an avenue to give back to younger first-generation students.

“We help high school students understand the college application process,” Benitez said. “Take trips to colleges, show them you can do things, take them to events where important people are, connect them with people — these are some things we do and [that’s] the reason why I’m still going.”

A nonprofit that focuses on the undocumented community, Dream Big Nevada, was another organization weighing in on the roundtable.

Astrid Silva, the group’s executive director, asked administrators to focus any new counseling, admissions and financial aid efforts more on undocumented students. She said that, compared to DACA recipients, undocumented immigrants are less likely to qualify or apply for financial aid and therefore need increased assistance. 

“I think, unfortunately, we need to have a count of how many undocumented students are at each school, because there’s no way for us to know what sort of population we’re helping if there’s no numbers,” Silva said.  

Julien Calfayan, a student government senator at CSN, told the roundtable participants that one of his primary issues is not getting paid through the college’s payroll system for hours worked. Where colleagues in his position received hourly pay, he said he could not because the system would not accept his Individual Taxpayer Identification Number or ITIN, which is often used by undocumented immigrants instead of a Social Security number.

Calfayan, who is also the chair of the bylaws committee at CSN, proposed an amendment to change the college’s bylaws to allow students like him to receive hourly wages in the form of a stipend that would be paid each semester.

“My amendment was personally signed off by [CSN] President [Federico] Zaragoza right after the NSHE roundtable meeting,” Calfayan said on Wednesday in a follow-up email, adding that the amendment was on its way to his campus’ senate for approval.

In closing comments, Zaragoza told Silva that he agreed there needs to be more information about the DACA and undocumented students that NSHE aims to help. 

“It’s important to understand that the undocumented group is much larger than the DACA group,” Zaragosa said. “I do think that’s an issue that needs to be addressed at the system’s level.”

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on Nov. 12 in Regents of the University of California v. Department of Homeland Security, a case that is pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In September, NSHE signed an amicus brief signed by 130 other higher education institutions challenging the lawfulness of President Trump’s attempts to end DACA. 

According to the Center for American Progress, there are 12,280 DACA recipients in Nevada.

This story was updated at 2:17 p.m. to correct a typo that said students could apply for federal aid with the internal application form. Students can apply for institutional aid with the form.

Nevada colleges strike a partnership with Mexican state of Tamaulipas; agreement will feature professor and student exchanges

A painted Mexican flag on a wall as seen close to the Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico

Nevada and a Mexican border state will soon begin to work together on academic enrichment projects as part of a formal partnership that will include scholars from both countries learning at each others’ institutions.

The Nevada Board of Regents announced the approval of a partnership Friday between the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) and its counterpart in Tamaulipas, Mexico.

Under a memorandum of understanding (MOU), both entities will focus on creating new educational opportunities and collaborating to build a greater cultural understanding.

"We have one of the most unique programs in the United States — and they are very interested in this program — which is about how things will become automated," Western Nevada College President Vincent Solis said during a recent interview with The Nevada Independent en Español. "They want to quickly transform how they are offering their classes and that requires that all teachers in those professions switch from Spanish to English."

In addition to Solis, Federico Zaragoza, president of the College of Southern Nevada, and Bart Patterson, president of Nevada State College, worked on the agreement.

NSHE said that under the new agreement with Tamaulipas, it will try to establish student and professor exchanges, design degree programs that require cross-border participation and study abroad experiences, and offer language classes focused on increasing proficiency among professors in technical English vocabulary.

Solis, who has family ties in Tamaulipas, said that the manufacturing industry in the region is one of the most outstanding in Mexico. The exchange program with Nevada will include bilingual training for teachers and students who are interested in careers with a high demand, especially those with a strong technological component, such as mechatronics — a field in which WNC has a two-year degree program.

"There are teachers who will come here for four days," Solis said. "It's like a continuing education class. They come, they receive training and they go back."

The agreement also calls for joint symposiums and conferences.

NSHE reported that about 27 percent of the students that enrolled in their institutions identified themselves as Hispanic, and that about half of all students in the Clark County School District identify as such.

Solis said he hopes that in the future, other states of Mexico will show an interest in this international model and that they will include careers in English, economics, business, depending on the needs of each region.

"I tell students they should always prepare for this ever-changing world," Solis said.



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.