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. 

Possible cuts still loom large as legislators begin parsing higher education budgets

Even as hopes remain high that new federal coronavirus relief could buoy state coffers, concerns over expected 12 percent cuts came to the fore Wednesday as members of the joint budget subcommittee on K-12 and higher education met for an initial overview of higher education funding. 

Budget documents from the system show those cuts would amount to roughly $85 million lost per year in both 2022 and 2023, an amount that system administrators and institutions presidents have said could hurt or otherwise stall gains made after the Great Recession. 

“Of course, I also agree that, as state agents, we all need to share the burden of revenue loss, I get it,” TMCC President Karin Hilgersom told the committee. “But I think it's not safe to assume that we have gone to the last year unscathed, because that's just not an accurate picture of what's been happening at TMCC.”

But Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas), the chair of that subcommittee, later pressed Chancellor Melody Rose and the system’s chief financial officer, Andrew Clinger, on the specifics of the the Nevada System of Higher Education funding formula, asking twice why the weighted student credit hours that make up that formula had increased, even as the coronavirus had shuttered most in-person classes. 

“So when I look at the weighted student credit hours, and Mr. Clinger would be familiar with my concerns, it’s just a constant growth, it’s exponential, it doesn’t seem to ever flatten out” Carlton said.

Rose and Clinger countered in part on the basis that the funding formula was last adjusted “right at the beginning of the pandemic” — when enrollments remained relatively flat — and has not yet been updated to reflect the possibility of now-decreased enrollments in the short term. 

“I imagine if you looked at weighted student credit hours for the current fiscal year, which we won't know until June, I wouldn't be surprised if, in some cases, those numbers were negative on the campuses,” Clinger said. “So it's a matter of the timing of the look back.”

Several of Nevada’s university and college presidents, asked by Carlton to explain the impacts of the proposed 12 percent cuts, acknowledged the difficult position of legislators required to manage the budget of the entire state. 

But, in the words of UNR President Brian Sandoval — a former governor who presided over the state in the depths of the Great Recession — 12 percent cuts would be “very, very difficult.” 

“We understand that we need to have shared sacrifice, we want to work with you,” Sandoval said. “But it is going to make a mark on us … I know as well as anybody that this is a difficult time, and that we’re going to work through this, but it will be difficult for our campus.” 

The relationship between higher education administrators, regents and the Legislature has long been strained — so much so that legislators nearly removed regents from the state Constitution through a proposed amendment (that amendment failed in the 2020 general election by less than one percentage point). 

As the state’s third-largest slice of the appropriations pie behind only K-12 education and health care services, NSHE is frequently among the state agencies with the largest raw cuts during economic downturns. Such was the case just last summer, when legislators added an additional $25 million cut, on top of nearly $110 million in already-planned-for reductions. 

In Wednesday’s meeting, Carlton appeared to leave the door open for additional cuts down the line, in part by reassessing if a decrease in weighted student credit hours would shift the funding formula. 

“We're looking at a very, very tight budget schedule and I'm looking at a weighted student credit hour that, if we redid the calculation, it would be a different number for next year,” Carlton said. “And there's a possible savings there that I would like to be able to analyze and be able to wrap my arms around.” 

But as legislators mull the future of the budget specifics, some faculty raised concerns that the short term effect of such cuts would be continued position losses and workload increases, especially as institutions have already spent nearly a year leaving vacant positions open amid a system-wide hiring freeze. 

“In a concrete sense, that means that those bodies, those employees in whatever critical role that they serve, whether it's a faculty member who's teaching in the classroom, or if it's a tutor, or an advisor, or a financial aid rep or any position that we might have on campus — that work still has to get done,” Laura Naumann, chair of the Nevada State College Faculty Senate, said. 

Kent Ervin, a chemistry professor at UNR and Vice President of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said these short term hiring solutions will likely become long term issues. 

“It will take years to dig out of this,” Ervin said. “The only hope is, this is a big hope, that federal relief funding through the American Rescue Plan will come in and fill the short term gap, so that the state economic forecasters will be sufficiently encouraged by that [and] we can avoid the longer term cuts through the end of next biennium.”

Amid budget talks, faculty lobby for merit pay increases 

For 12 of the last 13 years, Nevada law has prohibited pay raises for higher education faculty, essentially freezing salaries outside one-time promotions by ending a state-funded 2 percent merit pay pool as part of emergency recession-era cuts. 

What has followed, according to faculty at Nevada colleges and universities, are a series of severe retention, salary compression and morale issues as academic and administrative faculty have been locked out of all but one pay raise, possible only when receiving a promotion.

Those problems have been particularly acute for administrative staff, who often must move from department to department to seek pay raises, according to Doug Unger, an English professor at UNLV and president of the UNLV chapter of the Nevada Faculty Alliance. 

“Right now, there's no way for them to raise their salaries at all, except by moving laterally and leaving their positions,” Unger said. “So what happens in the institution is, you get very, very accomplished people … administrative faculty who are doing these amazingly difficult tasks —  what will happen is they won't stay, they'll move laterally so they can take a promotion somewhere in another department.”

The prohibition was partially removed in 2019, after legislators opened the door for NSHE colleges and universities to set aside 1 percent of their institutional budget for those increases. But after an initial version of the governor’s budget unveiled in January replaced the language, effectively blocking those raises once again, faculty are once more lobbying legislators to get it pulled from the final budget.  

The likelihood of such a removal is high. Susan Brown, director of the Governor’s Finance Office, told The Nevada Independent in an email that the language was included as part of the drafting process using last biennium's language and that the prohibition was not re-added intentionally. 

Still, if and when institutions do establish such 1 percent pools for dedicated pay increases, it may be some time yet before Nevada faculty see raises across the board. 

“It's pretty clear to us this year, even though the pool will be created, nobody's getting a raise,” Unger said. “It'll be targeted at those retention, and serious compression issues that administrators have to use in order to maintain the institution.”

Breaking down the push to break up Nevada’s higher education system

As Gov. Steve Sisolak delivered his second-ever State of the State address last month — one delivered in the shadow of a yearlong pandemic and a grinding economic recovery — there came something of a higher education policy surprise, tucked roughly halfway through the 30-minute speech. 

“We need to recognize that our community colleges will play an even bigger role in workforce training,” Sisolak said. “That’s why I will be asking the Legislature to work with the Nevada System of Higher Education over the next two years to develop a framework to transition Nevada’s community colleges to a new independent authority that will focus on making Nevadans job ready. Community colleges, together with union apprenticeship programs, are critical elements in building Nevada’s workforce and economic future.”

Those three lines — just 80 words in all — were the only mention of community colleges in the governor’s 18-page-long speech. But in the time since, they’ve triggered a flurry of questions with no apparent answers, all centered, theoretically, on a simple idea: transition Nevada’s four community colleges out from underneath the Nevada System of Higher Education. 

A spokesperson for the governor’s office, Meghin Delaney, told The Nevada Independent in a statement that the governor’s office had yet to submit a bill draft request — the first step of any prospective legislation — and that “we look forward to more discussions in the future.” 

Interviews with nearly a dozen higher education officials, administrators and faculty advocates show that, as of now, few of those discussions have taken place. 

The heads of all four Nevada community colleges — the College of Southern Nevada, Truckee Meadows Community College, Great Basin College and Western Nevada College — as well as Chancellor Melody Rose and Regent Cathy McAdoo, who chairs the regent’s Community College Committee, all declined to comment on the proposed idea, and all cited the lack of any specific proposal to comment on. 

“We [at NSHE], I think, share a common goal to make sure our community colleges are strong and healthy and well-supported,” Rose said. “I'm just looking forward to learning more. We haven't seen language yet, and so I'm hopeful that there will be further conversations with the governor as he sharpens pencil and works on the language.” 

With no clear plan yet articulated by either the governor or legislators, it remains unclear how or when such a plan will take shape. But, some advocates said, the bones of such a plan could easily form from the patchwork of higher education systems across the country — a patchwork that includes dozens of state-level governance structures devoid of any unified, central system and some that draw a clear distinction between two-year and four-year schools. 

All the while, the governor’s decision to spearhead a possible breakup of NSHE comes only as the latest attempt to apply high-level macro-fixes to a system long plagued by a deep-seated institutional mistrust between system administrators and Carson City. 

In just the last 10 years, that mistrust grew so vast that legislators sought to remove the Board of Regents — a body of thirteen elected officials who govern the state’s higher education system — from the state Constitution. 

In a proposed constitutional amendment that would later come to be known as Question 1, legislators argued that NSHE and the Board of Regents had for decades used its position in the Constitution to use legal backdoors to evade legislative scrutiny and meaningful oversight.

Both at the time and since, regents laid the blame for these issues at the feet of bad actors — long ago ousted from the system — and said Question 1 amounted to a “solution in search of a problem.” 

Question 1 narrowly failed last fall, rejected by voters by a margin of just 0.3 percentage points. In doing so, voters — who advocates for Question 1 said were confused by a lengthy, dense and difficult-to-answer ballot question — preserved the status quo for at least the next five years, or the time it takes to propose and pass a new constitutional amendment. 

But even as a new chancellor, two new university presidents and a soon-to-be new state college president have entered the fold since last August, the tense relationship between Nevada legislators and NSHE has yet to publicly thaw. 

As lawmakers convened last summer, the promise of incoming fresh leadership did little to stem the tide of incoming cuts. Not only did legislators vote to approve more than $110 million in cuts mandated by the governor’s office, they went further in slicing an additional $25 million from the system.

In the time since, the mood on the budget has lightened some as the governor pledged to restore a number of cuts — pledges that include millions for new construction projects and a promise to end state-worker furloughs by the start of the next fiscal biennium. 

Still, even with such restorations, Nevada higher education institutions will stare down a minimum budget cut of 12 percent through 2023, equating to roughly $85 million per year in system-wide reductions. 

And as the money question looms in the forefront of this year’s expected higher education legislation, it is in large part the broader implications of just how each college gets its money that has defined the earliest stages of a potential NSHE breakup. 

Western Nevada College as seen in Carson City on Wednesday, February 6, 2019. (Luz Gray/ The Nevada Independent)

A question of funding

Often at the core of recent pushes to reform, adjust or update Nevada’s higher education system has been the budget itself, and more precisely, the foundation of that budget: the funding formula. 

Overhauled in 2013 and later approved by lawmakers and the governor in 2015 and 2017, the formula includes both a “base formula” and a “performance pool” for institutional funding, with the former being based upon student credit hours, weighted differently depending on the coursework being completed. 

That weighting occurs in so-called “discipline clusters,” with more expensive clusters, such as graduate or technical programs, often receiving the highest weight. 

Still, critics of the new formula say it is too uniform in its treatment of wholly different institutions, even if student credit hours are weighted differently. 

Among those critics is David Damore, a professor and chair of the UNLV Department of Political Science, fellow at Brookings Mountain West and one of several co-authors of a “recovery and resilience” report prepared for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) alongside the consulting firm SRI in December of last year. 

That report, among other things, recommended the “redesign [of] governance and funding mechanisms for the community college system.” Part of the reasoning for that, Damore said, is a funding formula that utilizes a “university structure” is too opaque in its weighting of different classes, and that fails to consider an institution's capacity to deliver different courses. 

Because the largest institutions can offer the largest classes, large intro-level lectures with hundreds of students, Damore said there will always be an advantage over institutions forced to provide the same courses at drastically smaller class sizes. 

“So it really advantages the schools that have more capacity and can offer that kind of stuff,” Damore said. 

But for the community college presidents, the issue of the funding formula, and budgets more broadly, is a complex one that lacks a simple solution. 

“[The challenge] is not necessarily about the differences, it’s about how each institution navigates the challenges of these budgets and the limitations of the budget,” WNC President Vincent Solis said. “So I don't know, it's not going to be a one size fits all. It's a complicated process … the only thing that I can say is that it's expensive, the budgets have to keep up with expenses and every year expenses go up.”

Part of the funding issue unique to community colleges stems from the delivery of highly specialized technical programs. From welding to diesel technology to electrical, these programs — the same ones touted as necessary by the governor’s office, the SRI/GOED report and others — often come with outsize monetary costs that, absent built-in state funding, have been offset by private funding and state grants. 

“These are not cheap programs,” GBC President Joyce Helens said. “Ely, for example, when the mine there, Komatsu, said, ‘we need diesel, we’re trying to get people from Salt Lake, we can't, there just aren't anymore, can you start a diesel program?’ Well, to start a diesel program costs minimum, like, half-a-million dollars. So it was through the governor’s grants, and through industry, through Komatsu and others, they chipped in, and we were able to create a diesel program.”

This pooling of resources creates what Helens called a “well-lighted pathway” for students in rural Nevada, “a ladder up and a ladder out” of upward mobility that remains critical for students without the resources of the state’s urban corridors. 

And though Helens praised the existing system for creating a “tight-knit fabric” between institutions with different specialties and unique benefits — “I could work with UNLV or UNR if I can’t afford to offer anything they can” — she said she would have liked to have seen lawmakers revisit the funding formula, especially amid the budget crisis triggered by the pandemic. 

“Because one size doesn’t fit all,” Helens said. “And I knew that there were others who said ‘yes, they wanted to do that’ …  I just think maybe taking a look at the funding formula, to say ‘how does it work for all of us,’ would be a good idea.”

Amid broader discussions of the equity of the existing funding formula, the ongoing pandemic — and the economic crunch that followed — have created new concerns, especially among the faculty saddled with much of the burden of reduced operating costs. 

Cheryl Cardoza, an English professor at TMCC and chapter president of the Nevada Faculty Alliance at the college, said she was glad to see the governor pledge to end furloughs by the next fiscal year. But she also questioned the lack of protections for part-time faculty hit with those same furloughs, as well as rapidly “eroding” health care coverage. 

All the while, Cardoza said the hyper-focus on workforce development and other technical programs belies the fact that most community college students — roughly 60 percent at TMCC alone — are on track to transfer to a university. 

“I find it very difficult to understand why the governor is proposing this sort of ‘Workforce Development’ theme when it's outside the purview of what any other community college is doing in the United States,” Cardoza said. “Not to say that there aren't work training facilities, but that's not what community colleges do in the United States.”

Then, there is the issue of grants — or, for some critics, the lack thereof. Some proponents of a split have argued that NSHE’s unitary system has pushed the state’s four colleges away from their original mission as “community colleges,” and in so doing, risked jeopardizing potential federal dollars. 

In an op-ed published in the Las Vegas Sun last month, Damore and his two co-authors, Robert Lang and William Brown Jr., — who also helped write the SRI/GOED Recovery and Resilience report — argued that “Nevada has no publicly funded community colleges,” according to classifications by the U.S. Department of Education.  

This, they wrote, is largely due to the “proliferation of four-year degree programs at all campuses,” a proliferation that has, in their view, led to the erroneous categorization of the state’s community colleges as four-year institutions — a label that has left them ineligible for federal workforce development grants targeted at community colleges. 

However, these facts are disputed by NSHE officials and other experts, who say the federal IPEDS classifications in question — short for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System — would have no impact on the ability of the state’s colleges to apply for or receive federal money because they are still classified as “majority associates” institutions.    

David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges, said that the offering of four-year baccalaureate programs by community colleges “in no way” rendered them ineligible for funding. 

“For those programs that are targeted specifically on community colleges, policymakers ensure that institutions that primarily award the associate's degree, which is one of the defining characteristics of a community college, are eligible to compete for funds,” Baime said. 

More than 130 community colleges award some number of baccalaureate degrees, Baime said, or roughly 15 percent of all community colleges nationwide. 

“The offering of baccalaureate degrees by a community college in no way makes them fundamentally different from other community colleges that do not offer baccalaureate degrees,” Baime said. 

Still, those in favor of removing colleges from NSHE’s purview — including Damore — have pointed to an incident in 2014 in which CSN was forced to withdraw a bid in the fourth round of federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grants — a federal grant program aimed specifically at two-year education and career training programs. 

But documents from that period show that the issue arose from a misalignment between the programs included in CSN’s application and the federal requirements for that particular period, not any apparent issues with IPEDS classification. 

Instead, the college axed its bid after the U.S. Department of Labor ruled that the CSN programs in question “were not enhanced enough” to meet the TAACCCT requirements, according to a report prepared by an outside consultant for the remaining three Nevada colleges that did receive that final round of grant money. 

And though the college abandoned the fourth round of grant funding, CSN still received TAACCCT funding in two other rounds of applications. That includes the second round of grants, where CSN was the sole Nevada institution to receive any federal money through the program. 

Setting aside the technical specifics of the grant application process, proponents of a split have argued vocally that the TAACCCT saga represents, if anything, a missed opportunity for the state’s colleges, which, according to the SRI/GOED report, received less than $24 million of $2 billion made available by the Labor Department. 

Still, the loss of one grant may not transfer to the loss of another. To wit, CSN was awarded nearly $7 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce just this month for education and workforce training in West Las Vegas. 

Students gather inside the Donald F. Stone Classroom Complex at the College of Southern Nevada Charleston Campus on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

A question of governance

For those in favor of the push to separate the state’s universities from the community colleges, the question of budgeting is inseparable from the question of governance. 

“You have to both do the governance and the funding,” Damore said. “It just can’t be one, so you're talking about defining what these schools’ mission is, and then providing a governing structure that's going to support that and providing the funding that's going to support that.” 

Though Nevada’s economy is highly regionalized, Damore said, the centralized statewide system “doesn’t really respect the notion” of those regions. 

“Northern Nevada has very different interests and interfaces with a very, very different part of California than Southern Nevada does,” Damore said. “Elko is going to interface with Utah, and even into Denver, through mining, and we don't recognize that fact. We just say you're all going to be colleges, and some of you will be allowed to give PhDs and some of you will be allowed to give B.A.s, but we're going to call you a two-year institution.”

As a result, the wholesale determination of community colleges statewide has done little to define the structural differences in mission between colleges like CSN and TMCC — deeply embedded in their respective urban centers and adjacent to the state’s two universities — and a college like GBC, which maintains several far-flung rural campuses with unique specializations in technical trainings. 

However, administrators were largely skeptical of the structural impact of classifications such as two-year or four-year, or any kind of clerical distinction between the workforce development programs undertaken by institutions as different as CSN and GBC. 

And without another clear indication of what issue would be solved by a separation in governance, some administrators said they were unsure of why such a move should be pursued at all. 

“I've never been a person who's protected structure for structure’s sake, or even my own position, so I don't care about that,” GBC President Joyce Helens said. “What I care about is creating [a] well-lighted pathway for students — so how can we do this? I've heard what the governor said, too, so it seems like we're being offered a solution, but I don't know what the problem is yet.”

Helens said “of course” she saw room for improvement within NSHE, but said that in the course of her career elsewhere she’s seen “very fractured systems,” and that they were defined by a need to “raise your hand” in order to secure the necessary resources. 

And though she, too, would not comment on plans with “zero detail” available, TMCC President Karin Hilgersom said she viewed the timing of such a proposal as “weird,” especially in such close proximity to the failure of Question 1. 

“For me, personally, I would hate to fix what ain’t broken, you know, and I think we finally are at a place with our regents … there’s a group of regents now that I really love working with because they’ve developed, just, an appetite for all things two-year-college.”  

Regent Cathy McAdoo, who chairs the board’s Community College Committee, also defended the existing governance structure, saying in an emailed statement that “Within the integrated system of NSHE, we are able to strategically develop clear pathways to advance our students' career mobility at all levels.”

But for advocates of systemic higher education change, the failure of Question 1 has only created a new urgency to commit to new reforms. Chet Burton, a former president of WNC, former NSHE chief financial officer and outspoken supporter of Question 1, said he believes “we [don’t] have any more time to waste.”

“The status quo, in my opinion, it's just not sustainable anymore,” Burton said. “And I applaud the governor for seeing that. There's a lot of things we want to see happen in our state in terms of economic diversification and bringing new industry, and you have to have a trained workforce — and he understands the role of the community college plan, and I think he's come to the same conclusion.”

Noting that the regents are embedded in the Constitution as the governing body for the state’s universities, Burton said an ideal system, in his view, would allow the state’s colleges to utilize a “mix of statewide and local representation in their governance that understands the unique roles they play in their communities.” 

With so few details fixed in stone — or even articulated publicly — exactly what state might become the model for a new Nevada system remains to be seen. Though Nevada, which has a single statewide board charged with overseeing all higher education institutions, is not necessarily unique, it is just one system in a mottled patchwork of governance structures scattered across the U.S. 

Thus far, there have been at least a handful of options floated by proponents: Arizona State University is mentioned explicitly by the SRI/GOED report, which praises its use of public-private partnerships as a supplement to state-appropriated funding; California has long separated the governance of its universities and community colleges under two separate boards. 

And though some states similar to Nevada also maintain a singular, statewide board — most notably Idaho and Utah — those states still maintain key differences in the finer details of governance itself. Idaho, for instance, also utilizes a separate division for “community and technical education,” while Utah, though it combined its regents and “technical college” trustees into a single board last year, also utilizes a system of appointed regents, including at least one appointment of a trustee from a technical college.

Through the first few weeks of the legislative session, however, there appeared to be little movement on the governor’s promise, and thus, few details, concrete or otherwise. And, in the absence of such details, the only thing left for administrators, faculty, students and the rest to do: 

Wait, and see.   

Correction, 2/10/21 at 9:20 a.m. — This story was updated to accurately reflect a quote from TMCC President Karin Hilgersom, who said regents had an "appetite for all things two-year college," not an "appetite for all things your-college."

As fall semester nears, community colleges prepare for ‘hybrid’ return to campus

On March 16, higher education Chancellor Thom Reilly brought down the hammer.  

As public health officials began sounding the alarm over the impending pandemic spread of the novel coronavirus in the first few days of March, Reilly had already instructed the eight institutions within the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) to prepare to move operations online by the beginning of April. 

But as Gov. Steve Sisolak sought to shutter non-essential industry in a bid to slow the spread of the virus, Reilly accelerated the timeline and ordered colleges closed within the next two days. 

In the weeks that followed and with the help of a serendipitous spring break, administrators and faculty at institutions across the state used borrowed time to erect an online classroom infrastructure capable of filling the gaps in the last few weeks of the spring semester, broadly expanding the use of online tools already available and leaning on new-but-ubiquitous software such as Zoom or BlueJeans. 

Though there were some scattered complaints from students and faculty, the quick-switch by such massive institutions was largely heralded as a success — especially considering the dire circumstances and compressed timelines. 

But now — with just weeks to go before the start of the fall semester — those same institutions are grappling with the same questions, only with a new imperative: How close can a college or university come to bringing operations back to “normal?”

“First and foremost, we've been going, ‘plan for the worst, hope for the best,” said Patty Charlton, a vice president at the College of Southern Nevada (CSN) and the college’s COVID-lead.

NSHE institutions have broadly pursued “hybrid” reopening plans, prioritizing at least some form of in-person classes in addition to expanding online resources and providing widespread training for faculty looking to make a smoother transition to an online course for the fall. 

Last Thursday, UNR unveiled a 66-page reopening plan complete with mask requirements, reporting guidelines and a commitment to at least a partial return to in-person instruction through the use of a hybrid teaching model

But at the nearby Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC), early plans were made to move roughly 70 percent of classes to online-only offerings, largely mirroring steps taken by NSHE in the spring and summer by reserving in-person instruction only where it was necessary.

“What really culminated into the decision, pretty early on, was when one of the faculty members on the [planning] committee said, ‘You know, we understand that students want to come back to a face to face classroom, but students might not be imagining a COVID face-to-face classroom,” TMCC President Karin Hilgersom said. 

Such a classroom would be defined by the health, safety and social distancing guidelines now ubiquitous in the fifth month of the pandemic: plexiglass dividers in every room, alongside masks and face-shields and a six-foot buffer between every person. 

“So when we started as a group to Imagine a COVID face-to-face classroom, it just didn't seem as fun,” she said. 

At CSN, classes will hew closer to a 50-50 split between online and in-person. According to Charlton, those in-person experiences will be dictated by “whatever is the most restrictive” public health guideline available, with an emphasis — like other institutions — on masks, distance and other infrastructure improvements. 

“We knew very early on that we needed to identify what are going to be the limitations,” Charlton said. “And so we've been looking at all of the data that we're getting from, obviously the CDC, from the state, from the World Health Organization, and our local authority.”

Amid the plans surrounding a return to in-person instruction, Charlton said, remains a balance in ensuring a “robust online component” to the transitionary period in the fall, especially for those students who she said “may not feel comfortable” with in-person classes. 

But a college experience — be it at a community college or a university — is often more than the sum of its parts, as intangible parts of the social experience may often boost student success further down the line. 

Nevada State College President Bart Patterson, who helms an institution where the incoming freshman class is 90 percent diverse and roughly 60 percent of students are first-generation, said an online-only environment could present an additional challenge among those students who lack the same kind of generational or institutional support as their peers. 

“I think, for those populations, particularly, it's so important if we can, safely, have an alternative to this in-person classroom experience, even if it's with masks and with social distancing, all the requirements that we will abide by in order to do that,” Patterson said. “Because we're really trying to create that sense of community, a sense of belonging.”

Patterson added that, from an institutional level, the expansion of online resources created an opportunity to “rethink” the student experience, though fully recreating it may prove difficult, if not impossible. 

“It's really hard to do that in an online environment,” Patterson said. “I think we'll get better at it over time, but I can't say it will be 100 percent.”

And though the administrators who spoke to The Nevada Independent remained optimistic that the preparations made for the fall will steer their colleges through the transitions, the unpredictability of the pandemic has proven a persistent blind spot, especially with the looming possibility that more public restrictions could come if trendlines worsen. 

“We do know that our students really want to come back face to face, and faculty do too, by the way,” Hilgersom said. “But we're not going to do that at the expense of their health.”

Hilgersom said that TMCC will likely make a determination on the shape of the spring semester sometime in September, while Patterson pointed to conditions in October or November as a more likely yardstick for future decisions. 

“It's very dependent on what happens in the state and nationally with the number of COVID cases, the infection rate, the hospitalizations, and the availability of a vaccine,” Patterson said. “I mean, all of those things are fluid. We know that. But we're hoping that, at least by that spring semester, we'll be back and much more in person kind of setting.”

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.