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Funding and Student Enrollment and Graduation Remain Low at NSHE Institutions

October 26th, 2016

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Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) Chancellor John V. White recently presented a report to the Board of Regents and the public on the state of higher education in Nevada. The report, which compared Nevada to states with similar population sizes (i.e., Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, and Utah), highlighted the struggles NSHE schools have faced in recent years—both in funding and in student achievement. In this comparison, Nevada often came up last—or nearly last in a variety of categories.

Low levels of high school completion and college enrollment have plagued Nevada’s education system for years. And, as the Guinn Center reported earlier this year, the graduation rates at the state’s public four-year colleges and universities are well below the national average.  According to data National Center for Education Statistics and U.S. News & World Report, UNLV has a four-year graduation rate of 14 percent, UNR has a four-year graduation rate of 21 percent and Nevada State College has a four-year graduation rate of just 5 percent.

In addition, Nevada’s community colleges have low graduation rates and transfer-out rates, as the Guinn Center reported in July. Table 1 illustrates these two rates at the state’s two-year schools:

Table 1: Graduation and Transfer-Out Rates at Community Colleges in Nevada

 School  Location Graduation Rate within Three Years  Transfer-Out Rate
College of Southern Nevada Las Vegas 7% 16%
Western Nevada College Carson City 17% 14%
Great Basin College Elko 21% 17%
Truckee Meadows Community College Reno 30% 14%

As White noted, the percentage of Nevada residents who have obtained an associate’s or bachelor’s degree or higher remains far below the national average, as shown in Figure 1 (taken from the NSHE report).

Figure 1: Percent of Adults Ages 25-64 with an Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree (or Higher)

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Beyond graduation rates, enrollment numbers at both two- and four-year schools are declining even while Nevada’s population is growing. The State has the sixth strongest growth rate in the U.S., with a growth of 7.05 percent between 2000 and 2015, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Moreover, overall enrollment in two- and four-year colleges is increasing across the U.S.

“It is apparent that Nevada has too few students in higher education,” White said.

Figure 2 (taken from the NSHE report) compares college enrollment in the U.S. and Nevada. Figure 3 (taken from NSHE report) illustrates this decrease in NSHE enrollment per 100,000 residents in Nevada.

Figure 2: College Enrollment per 100,000 Population

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Figure 3: NSHE Enrollment per 100,00 Population

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In terms of funding for higher education, NSHE reports that Nevada ranks 44th nationally for support of higher education per $1,000 of personal income and 39th in the percentage of the state budget going to higher education. Among the comparable states, Nevada ranks last in these two categories, despite having a much higher household incomes than Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, and Utah.

Further exacerbating the funding problem for NSHE is that much of the spending relies on non-state sources, despite low levels of research expenditures. Only one of the state’s four-year colleges, University of Nevada, Reno, is considered a top-tier research institution by U.S. News & World Report metrics.

The Chancellor also discussed several other barriers to success that NSHE schools face, including: high student-faculty ratios, which makes it difficult for faculty to do work outside of their teaching responsibilities; the teacher pipeline problem for K-12 public schools; and the lack of college and career readiness among high school students.

Policy Considerations

To help address the challenges faced by NSHE schools and Nevada’s education system, and to encourage higher rates of high school completion and enrollment in NSHE institutions, legislators may want to consider the following:

  • Increase need-based financial aid programs. In 2015, the Nevada Legislature created the Silver State Opportunity Grant (Senate Bill 227), the state’s first ever need-based scholarship program, which provides assistance to low-income students attending Nevada State College and community colleges.
  • Expand opportunities for dual credit for high school students. Dual credit programs can help high school students transition to college and are a critical component of strengthening career readiness programming. Dual credit programs ease the transition process by allowing students to begin earning college credit while still in high school. Some research has found that dual credit students are more likely to graduate from college than non-participants. In 2015, the Nevada Legislature appropriated $3 million in Fiscal Year 2016 and $5 million in Fiscal Year 2017 for dual enrollment (and science, technology, mathematics, and engineering) programs (Senate Bill 515).
  • Provide more college readiness programs for high school students and support for students in college. Programs such as Upward Bound provide support to high school students from low-income families and students from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree. The program, which is currently available on all three of Nevada’s public college campuses, provides tutoring, SAT and ACT prep, and information on financial aid. As the Center for Academic Enrichment and Outreach at UNLV reported, 98 percent of local students who participated in the program achieved proficiency level on state assessments in reading and math.
  • Recruit and retain high-quality K-12 teachers to help reduce college remediation. In 2015, the Legislature passed a performance pay bill (Assembly Bill 483) that requires school districts to set aside funds to provide incentives to teachers (see the Guinn Center’s 2016 report, “Rewarding Performance” for more information). The Lyon County School District is using its performance pay funds to recruit and retain special education teachers by providing a $3,000 salary bump. Districts can access the New Teacher Incentive Fund (SB 511) to direct resources to Title I schools with dire need to recruit and retain special education teachers. Additionally, eligible districts can tap into a portion of Zoom School (SB 504) and Victory School (SB 432) funds to provide incentives to teachers, including special education teachers, at these qualifying schools.
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