Is higher ed's quest to 'align' colleges with workforce a solution in search of a problem?

More than eight months after Gov. Steve Sisolak shocked many in Nevada’s higher education world by floating the idea of breaking the state’s four community colleges off into their own governing board, nearly all parties are still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Sisolak’s concept took the shape of AB450 — a legislative study committee tasked with aligning the state’s workforce development goals with the community college system.

Aug. 1 marked the one-year deadline for the committee to transmit its report and recommendations to the Legislature, but so far, the governor has not made any appointments to the study committee. 

Unlike similar committees convened through the decades to study the state’s community colleges, the AB450 committee will be composed largely of economic and business representatives — not higher education officials. 

One member will come from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Three more will represent local chambers of commerce or “economic development entities,” including one from the north and two from the south. 

A fifth will be a labor representative with experience in a “jointly administered apprenticeship program” recognized by the state, and the sixth will be the superintendent of public instruction, a role currently filled by State Superintendent Jhone Ebert. 

Rounding out the last two seats are members from the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE): The sitting chancellor, Melody Rose, and one to-be-determined president of a community college. 

Proponents of AB450, most notably the governor, have cast it as a tangible step toward refocusing support of the state’s community colleges as a critical pillar in rebuilding Nevada’s post-pandemic workforce. 

But even as many within NSHE and some regents have signaled openness to AB450’s planned committee, they have also suggested that it may be a solution in search of a problem. Pointing to existing programs, partnerships and more, some have even chafed at the suggestion that a “misalignment” on the issue exists.

“I don't see the example [of misalignment], even when you go to what would be more strictly a community college in our system like [Truckee Meadows Community College] or [the College of Southern Nevada] or [Western Nevada College],” Great Basin College President Joyce Helens said in an interview. “They're all responding to business and industry, all the time, and in very big ways.”

Creation of the study committee comes amid the backdrop of more than $75 million in cuts to NSHE approved by lawmakers in 2021, and also in the midst of nearly a decade of simmering tensions between lawmakers in Carson City and the 13-member board governing higher education.

Beyond the question of whether better “alignment” between community colleges and workforce development is needed, recommendations by the study committee could herald potentially seismic shifts in the state’s higher education structure — everything from governance models to how colleges and universities are funded.

The view from the inside

For those within NSHE, the words “workforce development” are already functionally synonymous with higher education — and have been for years. 

“Higher education was creating teachers 147 years ago,” Regents Chair Cathy McAdoo said, referring to the year UNR was founded. “So yes, it's ongoing. It's not something that's just come on our radar.”

McAdoo, who also chaired the regent’s community college committee last year, said it’s not just community colleges, but the universities, too, that have long been a core driver the state’s workforce. 

“I see all of higher education as workforce development,” McAdoo said. 

McAdoo pointed to myriad higher education partnerships with massive corporations, including MGM Resorts International, Tesla, Panasonic and rural Nevada mining giants — all “proof of concept” of long-running collaboration between higher education curricula and private labor needs. 

While acknowledging that the state’s higher education system as currently constructed isn’t perfect, community college leaders interviewed by The Nevada Independent said they have long held workforce development as a core part of their mission.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, right, and Gov. Steve Sisolak announce a workforce grant during a roundtable at the College of Southern Nevada on Tuesday, June. 22, 2021. On the left is Dr. Federico Zaragoza, president of CSN. Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Speaking in an interview last month, CSN President Federico Zaragoza touted his college as a “major agent” of workforce development, in large part because of already existing efforts to line up programs with “emerging occupations. 

“So I'll give you an example — we're not producing enough nurses,” Zaragoza said. “So we're right-sizing the program. We now have an opportunity to have a campus begin to offer nursing. So that'll allow us to double the number of nurses in an area of high demand. That helps diversify, obviously, the student enrollment, but also feeds the diversification of the economy.”

Zaragoza also said the community college system would likely play a crucial role in retraining workers whose jobs were wiped away by shifts in the post-pandemic economy. 

“The other element here that's critical is a lot of people are getting displaced,” he said. “About 50,000 of the people that were displaced during the pandemic are not coming back to their previous jobs, so we're retraining those individuals into these areas of high demand.” 

At Great Basin College — an Elko community college with campuses across rural Nevada — part of the existing focus on workforce development comes simply from the realities of operating a school built to service the state’s “rural frontier.”

“This is a business, and we're in the business that embraces the technical college, the community college and the liberal arts four-year missions,” Helens said. “But we have to cover the cost of doing this business, and so the revenue sources work together to be able to do that and balance our bottom line.”

Helens said the school’s work was never in the “abstract,” but rather an active effort to communicate with the largest businesses in the region — namely mining companies or equipment companies such as Komatsu — to develop training programs and job pipelines. 

She touted the school’s successes, praising the rapid development of a welding program and a trucking program with the combined efforts of corporate funding, state grants and existing college resources. 

Helens also said she did not see any implied “misalignment” between existing programs at GBC and the broader stated goal of AB450 in workforce development.

“I don't know where that came from,” she said. “It’s—absolutely nothing I have experienced in my 40-plus years of working in community and technical colleges. And [it’s] the same at Great Basin College. When we were founded, I mean, we're always responding to business and industry. There is no misalignment.”

Helens conceded that there are areas that could be improved, mentioning possible efforts to create “better points of contact” for industry. Still, she praised existing workforce efforts at NSHE institutions and praised partnerships between GBC and other sister institutions like CSN and UNR. 

“I have asked the question, ‘Where'd that come from?’ — just like you are asking,” Helens said. “Give me an example, because I don't see the example.”

Money, governance and the road ahead

If the question of misalignment is nebulous for administrators and regents, it isn’t for David Damore — a professor and chair of the political science department at UNLV, a fellow at Brookings Mountain West and a vocal critic of the state’s governing structures for community colleges. 

“I see it as thinking more broadly about the state's economic development efforts in aligning within the regions to the sectors that the RDAs, the Regional Development Authorities, are supposed to go and recruit to come to the bat,” Damore said. “I don't see a whole lot of integration between what's going on in the economic development world, and the workforce development you're seeing at the institutions.”

Pointing to a 2011 workforce study from Brookings Mountain West that laid out a number of strategic statewide goals for economic development, Damore said there was a fundamental “disconnect” between a centralized statewide higher education system that, in his view, was not responsive to regional economic differences between North and South. 

The process of addressing those issues at a policy level, Damore said, ultimately drove at the twin prongs of AB450: money and governance. 

On the money question — more specifically, the question of how state funding is allocated per-institution by the existing formula — administrators and outside observers have for years characterized the existing structure as “one-size-fits-all.”

Developed in 2011 and approved by lawmakers in 2013, the formula’s current iteration centers on weighted student credit hours as a measure that endeavors to account for the differences between inexpensive courses, such as an English lecture, and more costly resource-intensive lab or graduate courses. 

That formula also came at a critical political juncture for the state’s higher education system, as proponents of a still-young UNLV sought newfound parity for a funding system they had long criticized as tilted toward UNR by influential northern lawmakers — parity that a new formula could deliver. 

“That has been the success of this structure,” Damore said. “UNR and UNLV both made Carnegie [R1 very high-research classification]; you’re starting to see much more research output and all those things. But that comes at the expense of small schools.”

The Legislature on Saturday, May 22, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

For community colleges, both observers and administrators said a gap has emerged in and among an increasingly large slice of students who are in non-degree programs — courses that range from IT certifications to nursing training — that don’t count toward the number of weighted credit hours. 

“I've got about 15,000 students that are non-credit students at CSN,” Zaragoza said. “So the formula doesn't work for them. And so looking at the formula, it's important for workforce because there are different pathways. The formula is perfect for the traditional student, but for non-traditional students that are looking for short-term training, or for short-term upgrading, that are non-credit based, that's the gap that we’ve got.” 

Zaragoza and others have pointed out such gaps could be addressed in the coming legislative session, and he said he was “cautiously optimistic” that 2023 could reverse downward funding trends for higher education in Carson City budget negotiations. 

Amid the financial chaos triggered by the pandemic, Sisolak and state lawmakers had initially slashed state agency budgets by 12 percent for each of the next two fiscal years, a cut that would have amounted to more than $169 million lost over two years for NSHE. 

That cut was ultimately blunted with the distribution of federal aid in the twilight hours of the legislative session, and lawmakers ultimately added back $93 million for faculty and staff salaries in a last-minute move that avoided layoffs. The remaining operational cuts were not restored, however, and NSHE institutions will enter the fall semester with almost $76 million in budget reductions. 

Still, Sisolak called for additional funding for community colleges just weeks later. 

“I've always maintained — from my time on the Board of Regents to the [Clark] County Commission to now as governor — our community colleges are underfunded and underappreciated and overlooked, unfortunately,” Sisolak said during a roundtable event in June. 

It was the second time in as many weeks that Sisolak — who spent 10 years as a regent before being elected to the Clark County Commission in 2008 — had raised the issue of “underfunded and underappreciated” community colleges in Nevada. 

But the second major change that could be spurred by AB450 — and what could ultimately become a more political question — is one of governance structure, though precisely how or what could come is among the many questions with few answers at this early stage. 

Damore — who joined several colleagues early this year in penning an op-ed in the Las Vegas Sun criticizing the community college structure — said one possible outcome is a broad decentralization of community college governance through the use of individual boards for each institution while maintaining the overall administrative structure of NSHE writ-large. 

Whether the AB450 committee and legislative recommendations that follow will treat NSHE administration and the broad idea of “governance” as two different questions remains to be seen.  

“That's the million-dollar question,” Damore said. “The current structure has really conflated governance and administration … And so, the part of the point of having these discussions now, in theory, is having another discussion about whether or not NSHE and the regents should be coupled in this way.”

The mere mention of governance and reform has dredged up another parallel issue: that the Legislature has for years sought to increase its oversight of the Board of Regents, in large part by stripping the regents of their position in the state Constitution and placing them in state law instead. 

That effort eventually took the form of 2020’s Ballot Question 1, which ultimately failed by a narrow margin of 0.3 points. 

But nearly as soon as it died at the ballot box, the measure was revived by lawmakers as SJR7. With language tweaked by proponents explicitly to avoid the pitfalls that sank the measure on the first try, SJR7 sailed through this year’s legislative session. If political winds do not drastically shift on the issue in 2023, SJR7 could be on a direct course to the ballot box in 2024. 

SJR7 and Question 1 before it have for years stirred debates over not just the simple oversight of regents by legislators, but foundational questions over constitutional interpretations and the very purpose of an elected board of 13 regents. 

And though proponents of the measure have sought to distance themselves from the implication that Question 1 could create an appointed board, some lawmakers have long sought to do just that — including a bill as recently as 2019, SB354,  that made it through the Senate before dying in an Assembly committee. 

Even as it is nominally tied to the outside issue of workforce development, the simple charges of AB450 have nonetheless emerged in a political environment in which that question — how the state’s higher education system should be governed — has shaped the broadest contours of higher education politics. 

Administrators have so far said little on the governance question, pointing in large part to the absence of tangible policies to comment on. Zaragoza pointed to his own experience at higher education systems with “two very distinct governance structures,” most notably a stint in Wisconsin, and noted “advantages and disadvantages” to each.

“I've seen both of them work, and both of them not work,” Zaragoza said. “I think the real issue becomes what is the plan? The execution? And what's the substance of what's being proposed? And that's the part that I haven't seen.”

Helens went a step further, praising existing institutional leadership at the community level and saying “we need a system that works; we don’t need another system.” 

“The governance of one system is important because then everybody knows where everybody's doing,” Helens said. “I've had multiple presidencies in different kinds of situations with separate governance systems. It’s always one fighting the other for more funding. The more we are unified and look at our whole state, and serving our state and the importance of all the pieces, the better off we are.”

Beyond the question of how to revise the funding formula, there are few clear answers on how the committee could choose to revise or reform governance. But unlike the many attempts to study the state’s community colleges through the decades, mandatory provisions within AB450 will produce legislative recommendations for 2023 — and a question long asked may finally be answered. 

“You know, this goes back to the founding of the system in the 1960s,” Damore said. “You've had study committees in the 70s and 80s. So the issue of where community colleges fit and what we want out of community colleges is a really, really old question. It's just been studied, but never really acted on.”

Correction, 8/15/21 at 9:05 p.m. - An original version of this story referred to the 2019 bill SB354 as having gone unheard in the Assembly. It has been updated to reflect that the bill was heard in an Assembly committee, but died without receiving a vote in that committee.

Indy Q+A: CSN President Federico Zaragoza on preparing for COVID in the fall and training a post-pandemic workforce

As the pandemic rocked higher education systems across the country — forcing classes online, shuttering dorms, cutting budgets — few institutions were squeezed as community colleges were. Nationwide, community college enrollment fell by 9.5 percent last fall, before plummeting again by 11.3 percent this spring. 

Those numbers were no less severe in Nevada, where community college enrollment drops between last spring and this spring ranged from just 6.7 percent at Great Basin College in Elko to roughly 12.9 percent at the College of Southern Nevada. 

Now, with the fall semester now just weeks away, The Nevada Independent sat down with CSN President Federico Zaragoza to discuss how the institution is planning to manage the virus in the coming school year, how the pandemic affected CSN and what role the college could play in retraining the workforce as the pandemic ebbs. 

Even though CSN was among the Nevada institutions hardest hit by the pandemic, Zaragoza said some recovery has already begun as the worst days of the virus have ebbed. But the coming fall semester and a new surge in cases and hospitalizations could present complications for higher education statewide, and Zaragoza said that if the college were to continue offering in-person instruction, “we're going to have to provide a safe environment.”

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Nevada Independent: Starting with the issue of the pandemic, there’s been a lot of discussion among colleges and the higher education space over the push for mandated COVID-19 vaccinations. In Nevada, that decision is up to the state and the higher education system, not the institutions, but how do you view the vaccines as a tool to suppress COVID as we head into the fall semester? 

Zaragoza: I think it's a policy tool, and we're committed to being driven by the science. And so at some point, the policymakers will have to make that determination. And certainly, it's in the toolkit.

So right now, from a CSN perspective, it's about waiting to see what happens on the policy side? 


A lot of the vaccination efforts on the part of institutions, including CSN, have centered on vaccine outreach. As vaccine rates have plateaued through the summer, do you think that outreach is still effective? Have we neared hitting a critical mass of students who are going to get vaccinated? 

Absolutely not. I think we're at the starting point if you will, of emphasizing the value of the vaccine, the benefits of a vaccine for that age group. We also want to do a lot more in terms of incentivizing vaccines so that students basically have an opportunity to get all the information that they need. So there's a lot of work that we need to do. 

I think we also need to be working more in the space, [and] social media, to push up some of this information within the context of higher education. So I believe that this is work-in-progress, and that we can do a lot more to get more of our students this vaccine.

In terms of communicating why students should seek out the vaccine, what’s the current deficiency in actually convincing students to get the shot? Looking forward to an in-person fall semester with full classrooms, how do you convince students that they should be getting the vaccine in the first place? 

I think you just mentioned the motivation there. If we're going to continue to offer the services, we're going to have to provide a safe environment. And obviously, if we can't do that, we're going to go back to a virtual setting. So that's the consequence. 

We've been there before, and I think it's important that students also recognize that there has been a close-down. And if the environment that we provide is not conducive to safety, we may have to revert to that. So I think that's the incentive. 

When we talk about incentives for vaccines, there's been a lot of discussion of carrot versus stick, right? Certainly on the state side, we've seen the carrot. So from CSN’s perspective, is there a concern that you might have to lean on the stick in order to make sure that COVID isn't an issue this fall?

Absolutely. And we're looking at every element of the toolkit — that includes masks, that also includes the distancing component, and then the [learning] modality. So all of that plays into our toolkit now, [and] that would hopefully move us towards a scenario where we are seeing those numbers reversed. And hopefully, when we get to that point where we have a safe environment, and we all feel comfortable, we can then go back to a new normal. 

But in the interim, we have already made adjustments in terms of the number of courses that are being offered. I think about 70 percent of the courses are still hybrid or virtual. So there's an adjustment that's been made there, [and] a lot of the support services we provide now are virtual as well. And when we come back, we're gonna have a combination of in-campus and hybrid. 

So it's that balance that we're trying to maintain, using every possible strategy that we can to keep our students safe, but also to motivate them and incentivize them to get the vaccine and to help create that environment that's safe for all of us.

Zooming out to the issue of enrollment, community colleges across the country were hit hard by pandemic-related enrollment declines. That includes Nevada colleges, and that also includes CSN, specifically. Even as we’ve recovered through the summer, the virus is surging yet again. As it does, what is your concern, if any, that there could be long-term impacts on enrollment because of the pandemic?

We've been very diligent about enrollment, though we lost 12 percent of our students in fall of 2020. We were the hardest hit of all of the NSHE institutions in Nevada. So we've been very diligently trying to get our students back into higher education pathways, and we've been pretty successful. So for us, this fall, we're about 5 percent up from the previous fall, so our efforts have been pretty successful in terms of providing information and the right programs so that individuals can re-engage with higher education. 

We're focusing on programs that are in high demand. For example, in our Henderson campus, we now have a new Health and Science facility. So we'll be able to provide more opportunities in pathways like nursing, where there's already a high demand, and we already have a waiting list of students waiting to come in. So that's going to help with our enrollment. 

We have a weekend college targeted for displaced workers, and that has a 70 percent fill rate, and then we're doing a lot of partnering with the workforce connection systems to get people that are unemployed back into retraining programs. All of that has given us a burst, if you will, where we actually project a 5 percent increase this fall, which is probably amongst the highest at least among some of the community colleges, or pure community colleges, because most of them are trending either negative or flat. 

A student walks at the College of Southern Nevada Charleston Campus on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

As Las Vegas, in particular, re-examines the need for economic diversification in the wake of the pandemic — especially as the hospitality industry, specifically, was so hard-hit — what role do you think CSN or community colleges generally will play in that diversification?

Yeah, actually, community colleges and CSN, in particular, are the major agents for a workforce retraining and rescaling. And you see that by the way that we work to align our programs to emerging occupations. So I'll give you an example — we're not producing enough nurses. So we're right-sizing the program. We now have an opportunity to have a campus begin to offer nursing, so that'll allow us to double the number of nurses in an area of high demand. That helps diversify, obviously, the student enrollment, but also feeds the diversification of the economy. 

Manufacturing is emerging as one of the fastest growing occupational growth sectors in Southern Nevada. And so we're now developing programs that are aligned to durable goods manufacturing. [The] Haas Corporation has announced that they're going to be locating here in Henderson, and they're going to be creating 3,500 jobs. We're already providing those programs that are going to train individuals for those jobs, information technology, cybersecurity, these are the types of programs that CSN is really focusing on to expand. The economy is diversifying, and we're that pipeline.

Now, the other element here that's critical is a lot of people are getting displaced. About 50,000 of the people that were displaced during the pandemic are not coming back to their previous jobs, so we're retraining those individuals into these areas of high demand. So that's why I think you see some of the increases in enrollment at CSN, because we are providing those opportunities in these areas of occupational demand, and that pay good wages. 

Under some legislation from this year, AB450, there is an expectation that lawmakers may revisit community college funding structures in 2023 under the auspices of “aligning” funding with workforce development goals. Do you think the current funding formula should be revised? 

I can tell you that I've been in two other states, Wisconsin and Texas, and in both of those states, the funding formula allows the community college mission to really maximize the impact in those communities, and I'll give you an example: It's non-credit programs. So you have a lot of individuals that may need a type of instruction that's not a diploma-based curriculum, so maybe they're not degree tract — they want to get a job, and they're going to need training, let's say in a certification area. Some of our programs, for example, in the IT sector CompTIA training (a cybersecurity and IT certification) is short term and it gets you into the workforce. There are some short term training programs like [Certified Nurse Assistant programs] that are available, credit and non-credit. Well, the non-credits are not “aidable.” So you don't get the state funding to support students that are getting retrained in your institutions. 

I've got about 15,000 students that are non-credit students at CSN. So the formula (Nevada utilizes a formula largely centered on funding per weighted student credit hour) doesn't work for them. And so looking at the formula, it's important for workforce [development], because there are different pathways. And the [per-credit-hour] formula is perfect for the traditional student. But for non-traditional students that are looking for short-term training, or for short-term upgrading, that are non-credit based, that's the gap that we’ve got. 

Another element of the formula that I think is critical is the whole issue of whether you base the formula on individual students, or you base it on the number of credits they take — the full-time equivalent (FTE) versus the enrollment number. And community colleges have argued nationally that we need to look at enrollments, because whether it's one student taking one course, or one student taking 12 courses, you still have to provide all of the onboarding services. And yet, for students at a community college, our formula is based on FTE, not enrollments. 

So yeah, we think those are issues that legitimately have to be looked at. And I know that our chancellor -- and I know that our Board of Regents -- is very open to going back and revisiting how the funding formula works. And I'm just very excited that we're going to have that conversation.

How hopeful are you that when we come back to higher education budgets in the 2023 Legislature, that we could see an increase in the total amount of funding put toward higher education, toward community colleges? 

So I'm optimistic, cautiously optimistic, that the Legislature is going to see fit to increase funding for higher education across the board. 

And I worry about communities that are left behind — non-traditional students that perhaps are not college ready, that perhaps are working on their GED or some other parts of their educational pathways. And they're not “credit” students, and they're not being assisted by the funding formula. So I think that that's the conversation that we need to have. And I do think that we're going to need more funding, in general, to support the role of community colleges.

The second piece of AB450 is governance, i.e. does the current structure of NSHE and the Board of Regents work for community colleges. We won’t know the outcome of the AB450’s committee for some time, but as of now, what do you think does or does not work under the current structure? 

So there are some true advantages to having a system of higher education. I've been in Wisconsin, which was primarily a system that had two very distinct governance structures, one for community colleges and one for universities. And there were advantages and disadvantages to that. Probably, you can look at the funding formula and make arguments that it's a clear path to the funding, when you're talking about just the community colleges, and the university decisions are being made in a different side of the house. 

But the issue for us is that there are also disadvantages to that, and I'll give you an example: the issue of articulation (institutional transfers). Most students that come to the Nevada system and take courses in a community college will be able to transfer those courses to universities. So we're integrated, we have the ability to do a lot of joint planning, a lot of collaboration, shared services. And those are benefits that can be easily quantifiable. So there are truly advantages to an integrated system, like the way we've got now. Again, the disadvantages, you've heard about them. They're obvious as well. 

But I've been in a two-tiered system. And I've seen both of them work, and both of them not work. I think the real issue becomes, what is the plan? The execution? And what's the substance of what's being proposed? And that's the part that I haven't seen. You know, I always talk about “the devil’s in the details.” So I'm going to have to see the actual governance proposal, so that I can really make an informed decision, because like I said, right now, you know, there are pros and cons to any governance structure. It really depends on how that is structured here in Nevada.

When you say strategic adjustments, like the implementation of dual enrollment programs, are a necessity in responding to the job markets, I’m curious about the timing of these adjustments. How quickly do you think these programs should be implemented in order for the system to keep up? 

We're playing catch-up. I can tell you that our goal at CSN — when I came to CSN, we had 2,500 students in dual enrollment. We probably have about 6,000 now, and our goal would be that by 2025, we have 15,000. That would mean about half of the CCSD graduates would have earned college credit before they graduate from high school. 

Hopefully, if we do this right, they would be on a trajectory for further education, college-proven. So I think that the models have to accelerate. I left a system, Alamo Colleges in San Antonio, that had 15,000 students (total) when I left. It was a smaller community than we've got here in Southern Nevada, and a much higher penetration rate. So we have to play catch-up. 

And then the other areas — kind of the whole apprenticeship and incumbent worker training — where individuals now are probably going to need a lot more training just to stay productive. The issue becomes, we have to change our systems now to be aligned, so that we can provide training to a different type of population in a different setting. But if you look at the projected kind of dynamics, you are going to need to have lifelong learning. So you're going to need lifelong learning institutions, and I think that's what the community colleges can excel.

So when you say “we’re playing catch-up” — Nevada’s state policymakers operate on a two-year timescale with a biennial Legislature. When we discuss increasing budgets or changing governance, those final discussions are still years away. So how responsive can an institution like CSN really be within that framework?  

I think first and foremost, CSN is going to be as responsive as our environment and ecosystem allows us to be. And I can tell you that in all of these areas, it's not higher education working in a vacuum, especially community colleges. We're working much more in tandem, and I'm going to give you a concrete example. 

I mentioned that we have to expand our ability to reach out to populations that are being underserved. Many of them live in parts of the community that are underserved, that lack infrastructure for higher education. So we're partnering with the city of Las Vegas, and Councilman Cedric [Crear], to be able to develop a Westside education and training center that's going to be located right there in the Westside historical district. And we're going to have training programs right there. So that's a new area that we're outreaching to, [and] we're gonna have a new center of excellence, right here in Henderson, built by the City of Henderson, to serve the needs of Haas and the manufacturing sector that is emerging in Southern Nevada. 

Now, in both of these cases, it's not CSN funds that are being used. These are funds that are being funneled to support CSN. So the community's really realigning their resources into higher education to support the kind of programs that CSN offers. So we can be very responsive if we work in that framework. It's not just realigning the resources that are in our budget, it's realigning the support of the community and resources that are in the community, so that we can be more effective. I can tell you that our foundation almost doubled the number of donors and in a two-year period, because of that effort, I think people see that CSN is moving in a different direction, and that it's a direction that this community supports. With community support, we can be very nimble, we can be very aggressive. 

When we discuss the goals of providing access, of serving underserved communities and getting them into the pipeline, where do you think there’s room to grow? 

We're under-serving at best. If you look at the demand for higher education in Southern Nevada, there's a huge gap between what we can offer and what the need is. And so the opportunity for both is tremendous. The question really becomes, what common investment can we make, so that we get all of our individuals into these pathways that lead to prosperity and self-sustaining wages? 

And you go back to that original question, at the policy question, how much will we be investing in higher education, for what type of treatments and at what level?

And when you say “we” that's not CSN, that's the state of Nevada? 

Correct, our policymakers. 

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.