by Scott Neuffer

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August 30, 2012
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New college funding formula sparks opposition

A new college funding formula proposed by the Nevada Board of Regents would favor high-brow academia at the expense of rural residents trying to enrich their lives and improve their communities, District 9 Regent Ron Knecht argued on Tuesday.

“Western Nevada College and Great Basin College would be devastated, while the universities and the College of Southern Nevada would make out like bandits,” he said. “There are some good features in the formula, a lot of different features, but one in particular is terribly objectionable. It’s poor public policy, it’s poor educational policy, and its effect would be devastation for GBC and WNC.”

Knecht, who represents Douglas County, among other counties, cast the single dissenting vote against the board’s recommendation last week. While he generally agrees with a performance-based model, where funding follows the number of students completing courses versus enrollment, he vehemently opposes a cost-based sliding scale that allocates more money to more advanced, more expensive courses.

For example, he said, introductory English or statistics might be assigned a value of 1, while a postgraduate physics course might be assigned a value of 8 and thus funded at a higher multiple.

Knecht said the cost-based table was formulated by a consulting firm that studied four college systems in the country and “imported” averages for each discipline and course level in Nevada.

The table doesn’t reflect true cost of delivery in rural areas or the social value of some courses, Knecht said.

“In a beginning statistics course in any institution, people learn concepts that help them understand what’s in the newspaper, or what their doctors tell them, and they learn things that may qualify them for a job,” he said. “An advanced physics course in string theory is very interesting and important stuff. It’s very challenging to some minds. But I can’t see any way the social value of that advanced physics course in string theory is eight times the value of beginning statistics on a per-student-credit-hour basis.”

Knecht said whatever the state allocates to higher education in the upcoming biennium would be divvied up according to the new table.

“Beginning English and beginning statistics have value to many people in very practical ways,” he said. “I don’t mean to dismiss or disrespect advanced physics or anything else, in fact I minored in physics, but we need a lot more Nevadans who are literate and numerate, even if they’ll never be familiar with James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ or string theory.

“Under this formula, if you’re pursuing graduate studies in English, we’re going to support you big time with taxpayer funds. But if you’re just here to get a basic education to enrich your life and make you more competitive in the job market, we’re not going to support you so much.”

Besides ascribing more value to professional academics, the sliding scale unfairly equates the cost of delivery in rural areas to urban areas, Knecht said.

For example, the College of Southern Nevada can spread out the costs of facilities and instruction over multiple sections of introductory English with 25-30 students in each class, he said. Offering the same course at WNC Fallon may mean spreading those costs over a dozen students.

“What it really doesn’t do is distinguish between rural community colleges that serve a large geographical area with a small population and schools like the College of Southern Nevada,” he said. “Both get assigned a value of 1 for beginning English, but it’s much more expensive to provide a basic English course at Great Basin College or WNC. These numbers were imported from elsewhere in the country.”

Knecht contends that any new formula needs to better account for the transitional nature of community colleges.

“The formula doesn’t recognize the full value of GBC or WNC being feeders,” he said. “The idea of community colleges isn’t so much degrees completed, but that they’re stepping stones a lot of people use for a job or for that next level at the university.”

The new formula was (greenlighted) by the Interim Legislative Committee on Wednesday. It now heads to the governor’s office to be incorporated into the executive budget for the next biennium, which begins in 2013.

Knecht said he will appeal to the governor and other lawmakers to change the formula.

“These are the inherent economics of reaching out to rural small towns in Nevada,” he said. “Is the state of Nevada really going to say to rural small towns, ‘Too bad, opportunity is going to pass you by?’”

Knecht may be the harbinger of an opposition groundswell going into the next legislative session. Budget projections under the new formula have left WNC officials bewildered — and outraged.

“We have an important role to play, and we need to be left alone to play it,” said Anne Hansen, WNC director of information and marketing services. “There has to a be a point where we can’t do this anymore. We are there. We are past there. We can’t handle even a partial amount of what they’re proposing.”

According to the Associated Press, the two-year budget plan would reallocate about $13 million from northern schools to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the College of Southern Nevada, and Nevada State College in Henderson.

UNR would see a 1 percent cut, or $1.3 million. Great Basin would receive $9.5 million, down from $14 million. Truckee Meadows Community College would receive $27.7 million, down from $30.6 million, and WNC would receive $10.5 million, compared to $15 million in the last fiscal cycle.

In their 12-1 decision, Regents did recommend a one-time $5 million contribution from the state to soften the blow for community colleges. Without it, WNC would be looking at a 30 percent cut.

“We’ve had three to four years of nonstop budget cuts, and there’s nothing left but essential functions,” Hansen said. “We’re very proud we’ve been able to keep our rural campuses open. It’s really been the generosity of our students willing to take an 8 percent fee increase this year. That’s directly where that money went. We cannot take another $4.5 million out of this college. We cannot take it. We need stability. We’re training the workforce in this part of the state, and they need us to be stable.”

Hansen said the college has been working towards the state’s emphasis on degree completion, such as mandatory counseling and orientation for full-time students, a summer bridge program for high school graduates, and more guest speakers and mentorships.

In fact, enrollment at the Douglas campus is up 14 percent this year. More than 350 full-time and part-time students have signed up for classes in Minden, she said.

“We’re doing all kinds of creative things to see that more students graduate, but we need help from the other side, too, in order to have the resources to keep going,” she said. “People of rural Nevada still deserve to have access to education in a meaningful way. I do hope the community is willing to fight for it. We certainly are.”

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The Record Courier Updated Aug 30, 2012 06:46PM Published Aug 30, 2012 06:45PM Copyright 2012 The Record Courier. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.