Earlier this week, Governor Sandoval spoke about Nevada's state budget. Anyone with a stake in the future of our state should take a closer look at what he said – and didn't say – about investment in higher education. If you do, you will see that the governor does not take a balanced approach when it comes to education, and that higher ed is already shouldering much more than its share of the sacrifice.
If we continue on the path the governor suggests, our state's colleges and universities will be decimated. Nobody wants that. The Nevada Faculty Alliance urges the governor to consider a truly balanced, alternative approach.
In a speech on Tuesday, May 3, the governor defended his decision to allocate almost no additional investment in higher education. The budget proposals he had submitted earlier in the day would increase state investment in higher education by only $16 million statewide. (He recommended an additional $20 million to NSHE out of $271 million available due to Economic Forum projects, but the new Economic Forum property tax projections also resulted in a $4 million loss to what had already been proposed in his budget, so the proposed cut actually increased to about $166 million.)
This leaves a hole of nearly $150 million in the higher education budget for the coming biennium, even after the anticipated across-the-board 5-percent pay cut and deep cut to health coverage for all faculty and staff.
And this is on top of the huge budget cut already absorbed by Nevada System for Higher Education institutions this biennium.
The governor anticipates this budget hole will be filled by student fee increases and cuts to academic programs (including many faculty layoffs). In other words, although he said “we cannot tax our way out and we cannot cut our way out,” that is precisely his plan for higher education: Tax our students (and their parents) further and cut their educational opportunities deeper.
Effects of Budget Cuts Experienced and Proposed
Let us remember:
- Student fees have already increased by nearly 50 percent on average over the past three years as a result of continuing the budget philosophy of his predecessor, Jim Gibbons.
- State support for NSHE has already been cut by more than 20 percent in actual dollars over the past three years, even before his proposal to cut another 29 percent in net governmental support for the coming biennium.
This crisis for higher education has been going on for four years now:
Reforms Already in Place
- Workloads have increased for faculty (who took on an additional 15 percent of students in the past biennium, with much of that increase coming from tenured faculty).
- State spending in non-instructional areas has been rolled back by more than a third System-wide (and even more at the universities).
- Low-yield and high-expense degree programs have been eliminated by the dozens (resulting in a large number of faculty layoffs including tenured faculty).
- Defacto enrollment caps have been instituted at community colleges, denying access to thousands of students and workers seeking opportunities to develop new jobs skills.
- Compensation for faculty and staff has been frozen since 2007; since 2009 it has been rolled back by 4.6 percent through furloughs for most employees. Pay will be rolled back further in the coming biennium. Due to an agreement by the faculty and Chancellor and approved by the Board, a state legislative pay cut for state workers for the future will be passed along fully to the entire faculty.
- Health benefits for faculty and staff have been cut far below competitive levels and will be cut even more steeply in the coming years.
- Dozens more degrees and programs would be cut from a state that already ranks 51st in the country in the ratio of degree programs offered to eligible population and which also ranks at the bottom for percentage of population attending college (a measure that census data shows closely correlates to the ratio of degrees to population).
- Literally one in eight faculty and staff at the universities would be laid off under the detailed budget plans submitted to the legislature. This includes an estimated 200 tenured faculty, a staggering figure that would ensure years of litigation and has already brought national opprobrium on our state’s higher education system.
- These program cuts would displace 12,000 students per year statewide.
Among the many oddities of the governor's speech was that he focused most of his time on calling for “reforms” to education in lieu of adequate funding. Yet almost every single “reform” he called for is already standard operating procedure on our campuses:
- Rigorous evaluation of individual faculty performance. Faculty at all levels and on all campuses are evaluated annually by peers and administration, and most instructional staff are on contracts that require annual renewal. Even tenured faculty can be removed after two successive years of poor performance evaluation.
- Use of performance measures rather than seniority to promote, reward, or to make cuts. Our campuses every year undertake painstakingly careful reviews of faculty performance using dozens of measurable standards in order to determine which faculty to reward and promote. Seniority is not a measure used for determining where to cut (or promote) higher education faculty.
- Periodic program reviews. Institutions conduct meticulously detailed internal and external reviews of our degree programs to determine how best to deploy resources to ensure educational opportunities. Programs are added when needed, but cut if they are not producing the desired results in terms of student graduations.
- Curricular innovation. To take but one very current example, the UNLV faculty has been actively involved in a lengthy and detailed discussion of its undergraduate education program to improve how we train students and how we measure the results. To take another, only a few years ago the entire System aligned and articulated its curricula across the state.
- Cost-efficiency reforms. The regents have recently approved a number of other reforms that will make NSHE institutions more efficient, including calling for a 120-credit limit for most undergraduate degrees, approving differential fees for high-cost, high-demand programs and other changes.
It is no exaggeration to say that the System of Higher Education would be decimated once again (literally, cut by at least another one-tenth) under the Sandoval “tax our way, cut our way” approach to higher education.
There is no short-term recovery from cuts of this magnitude. Once programs are terminated, they cannot be restarted; a good portion of those 12,000 students per year will likely leave the state to pursue their education and their careers, if they can afford to. Many others will simply be left out, losing a chance to improve their lives.
Higher education is a good bargain for Nevada. The return on investment from each state dollar spent has been shown to be between $1.50 and $4, depending on the region and the year. This is a demonstrably higher return than is achieved in many areas of the private sector.
The governor proposed in his speech that Nevada should “grow its way” out of the economic crisis. The System of Higher Education already has grown dramatically: Enrollments have risen steadily statewide and sharply at some institutions (despite the fee and tuition increases), and demand for enrollment has risen even more sharply. This demand cannot be met with the budget cuts being experienced and proposed. Revenues from areas other than the state – including research grants and contracts – have risen steadily over the past decade, demonstrating the entrepreneurial success of the faculty.
The governor, however, would pull the platform out from this business success. His proposal for higher education is merely to cut our way out and to tax our students further. And his proposals can only curtail efforts to get more research grants as some of our best faculty leave for better opportunities elsewhere, which is occurring. Is this the way to diversify Nevada’s economy?
The Governor claimed a vision of a dynamic and forward-looking state, yet he completely overlooked in both his speech and his budget revisions to the most dynamic and forward-looking of our public services: higher education. His budget would cripple NSHE's efforts to offer educational opportunities to thousands of students, limit efforts to diversify Nevada’s economy and ruin the careers of hundreds of faculty and staff who have come to Nevada to make it a better place.
We urge the governor to reconsider his position, and call on all citizens and legislators to join us in trying to help NSHE institutions survive, so that they can assist Nevada and Nevadans in building a better state for all of us.