Closing the Opportunity Gap is Critical to Nevada’s Long-term Economic Growth

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by Nancy E. Brune, Ph.D.

For many, June marks the month of graduation ceremonies and festivities to acknowledge this rite of passage. But data shows that many individuals, especially African Americans, Latinos and low-income students, are not graduating and successfully moving through these transition points along the college and career pathway.  There are unfortunate yet clear findings regarding educational disparities by race in Nevada:

  1. Nevada has the lowest high school graduation rate for African Americans (58.1 percent) and for Latinos (69.2 percent) among all the Intermountain West states.
  2. Nevada has significant disparities in high school graduation rates between African American students (58.1%) versus white students (79.8%) and between Latino students (69.2%) and white students (79.8%).

A recent report ranked Nevada ninth in the nation in job growth, but 43rd in college readiness, and 46th in educational attainment, with only 31 percent of our Silver State’s population (age 25-64) having earned an Associate’s degree. This is a troubling statistic given that by 2020, 49 percent of jobs in Nevada will require some sort of postsecondary degree or certificate, but less than a four-year degree (“middle skilled jobs”).

In December 2016, Kelli Parmley and Marshall Smith, both of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, penned a Brookings Institute education memo in which they wrote: “Achieving economic competitiveness demands a national response to increase the number of people earning four-year degrees or credentials. Despite recent improvements in college-going rates, the overall degree completion rates, combined with disparities in educational attainment for low-income and underrepresented populations, will impede our nation’s efforts to develop a flourishing, inclusive economy.


In Nevada, the opportunity gap remains significant across different student populations. For example, the 2015-2016 graduation rate (4-year adjusted cohort) for all students in Nevada was 73.6 percent, compared to 66.7 percent for economically disadvantaged students, and only 42.6 percent for students who are English Language Learners. Figures 1-4 reveal the opportunity gaps in graduation rates (5-year adjusted) across four school districts in Nevada. Here, we define opportunity gap as the difference between the highest and lowest performing groups in graduation rates. As Figure 1 illustrates, the graduation rate for African American students in Nevada was 58.1 percent, compared to 86.6 percent for Asian students, reflecting a gap of 28.5 percentage points. As presented in Figure 2, In Clark County School District (CCSD), the 2015-2016 graduation rate for African American students was 60.5 percent, compared to 86.6 percent for Asian students – a gap of 26.1 percentage points.  In Washoe County School District (WCSD), the graduation rate of American Indian/Native Alaskan students was 57.4 percent, compared to 87.4 percent for Asian students, which represents a gap of 30 percentage points (see Figure 3). And, per Figure 4, across Nevada’s public charter schools (sponsored by the State Public School Charter Authority), there are significant opportunity gaps.  The 2015-2016 graduation rate for multi-racial students was 51.7 percent, compared to 86.7 percent for Asian students, reflecting a gap of 35.0 percentage points.

Figures 1-4. Graduation Rates, by group, 2015-2016

Table 1 compares graduation rates among states in the Intermountain west. As the data reveals, Nevada’s opportunity gap is bigger than other states in the Intermountain West. Specifically, in Nevada, the difference in graduation rates between the highest and lowest performing groups is 28.5 percentage points. In contrast, the difference in graduation rates between the highest and lowest performing groups is 10.3 percentage points in Texas.

Table 1.  Graduation rates in the Intermountain West, by group, 2015-2016 (4-year cohort)


Data reveals that the opportunity gap persists in student outcomes at Nevada’s institutions of higher education. Table 2 reveals that the difference in graduation rates between Asian students and American Indian/Alaskan Native students is 35 percent. While the opportunity gap at the College of Southern Nevada is the smallest in the Silver State, the overall graduation rate is 7 percent.

Table 2. Graduation Rates at Nevada’s Higher Education Institutions, by group, 2015-2016

Fortunately, in the last two years, the Silver State’s education leaders have identified “closing the opportunity gap” as one of their institutional strategic goals. In 2017, Nevada authored (and submitted) a new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan in which it identifies closing the opportunity (or achievement) gap as one of the state’s priorities. In the ESSA Plan, Nevada noted that the updated Nevada School Performance Framework (NSPF) “will include […] closing opportunity gaps between student subgroups, student growth towards proficiency targets, student growth relative to peer group, and English language acquisition for [English Language learners]. These measures will ensure the rating system addresses the progress of all student groups in order to provide an equitable picture and demonstrate school achievement.” Additionally, the Nevada System of Higher Education’s new strategic plan includes the goal to “close the achievement gap among underserved student populations.”

Additionally, there are efforts underway that are directly and even indirectly closing the opportunity gap for students in the Silver State.  One of these programs is Jobs for Nevada’s Graduates (JAG Nevada), a program which “strives to graduate every student entrusted in our care from high school and set them on a path to higher education, a career or both.”* JAG Nevada, which currently operates 55 programs in schools throughout twelve of Nevada’s school districts, has helped students graduate and is closing the opportunity gap. For example, Table 3 presents data on the 2015-2016 graduation rates for students who participated in the JAG-Nevada program. The difference in graduation rates between the highest and lowest performing groups is only 20.1 percentage points, which is lower than the difference in graduation rates for all Nevada students (28.5 percentage points –see Table 1).

Table 3. Graduation Rates of Students Who Participate in the JAG Nevada program, 2015-2016


In the higher education space, Western Nevada College (WNC) has launched a Latino Cohort program, which is a “program to promote enrollment, course completion, and degree attainment among Latino students” at WNC. The graduation rate of Latino students at WNC who participate in the Latino Cohort Model is 52 percent, compared to the 22 percent for all students and for all Latino students. WNC has launched this program in the absence of any additional and external funding. Scaling it to serve the needs of more students would require additional funds.

To further address the opportunity gaps, the Lumina Foundation, in collaboration with the Kresge Foundation, the College of Southern Nevada, the Nevada System of Higher Education, and others, recently announced that it will invest in and launch a Talent Hub program in Las Vegas. The Talent Hub program aims to accelerate community educational attainment levels by having local partners integrate educational strategies implemented by the College of Southern Nevada, which include “providing vulnerable populations with academic maps, preventive intervention for academically struggling students, academic and career advising, and more.”

Scaling these efforts, like the Latino Cohort and others, will likely require a greater infusion of resources. Decision makers and educational and instructional leaders should also be accessing and reviewing real-time data to design interventions to meet the needs of students. Collectively, these efforts could serve to increase the successful completion of secondary and postsecondary educational pathways and reduce graduation inequalities based on income, race, and ethnicity. Over time, these initiatives should help support Nevada’s long term economic growth.

Note: Data sources can be found here: Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE).

Photo credits: Astrid Silva

* The author of this blog sits on the JAG Nevada Board of Directors.