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Monday, April 16, 2012

Putting the community in Nevada’s community colleges

Monday, April 16, 2012 
From the Las Vegas Sun online (click here).

All too often, policy discussions in Nevada — particularly those related to education — deteriorate into partisan fights over funding. Equally important but rarely noted is the impact that the state’s antiquated governance structures have on Nevada’s poor educational performance.

The management of the state’s system of higher education is a perfect example of how bad governance produces bad outcomes. Indeed, precisely because the various proposals from the Nevada System of Higher Education to revise its funding formula do not address the need to diversify and broaden the base of support for higher education, they perpetuate the same zero-sum competition among institutions that has plagued Nevada for decades and highlight the need to look not just at the funding formula, but governance structures as well.

Nevada is one of the few states that centralizes all of its higher education institutions — research universities, colleges and community colleges — at the state level and distributes their funding through the same process. Most states recognize that different institutions of higher education have different missions and that their governance and funding should reflect those differences.

This means that the state government oversees and funds a state’s universities and colleges, while community colleges are governed and supported locally. State resources support institutions whose mission is statewide, while community colleges are designed to meet the needs of local constituencies, so their curriculum is tailored to support local workforce demands. Local communities have accountability over the performance of these institutions. In short, local buy-in and local control are what put the community into community colleges.

Look at Chandler-Gilbert Community College in Arizona to see what can happen when community colleges have this type of governance. To facilitate career and technical training, that institution has established a partnership with Intel, which donates money, equipment, and scholarships and offers internships to support the school’s automated manufacturing systems program.

The school also has developed a biomedical research technology program to fill demand for one of Chandler’s core industry clusters. Internships get graduates into the local workforce and the program is overseen by an advisory board consisting of representatives from biotechnology firms in the region.

Compare that to Nevada, where a recent meeting of the State Apprenticeship Council, the entity created to coordinate workforce training, was unable to even meet because it lacked a quorum.
Community colleges governed like Arizona’s also are in a position to capture federal funding. For instance, the Obama administration has developed a number of grant programs, including an $8 billion workforce training program, that are aimed at creating partnerships between local businesses and community colleges and developing academic programs that support local industry needs.

And unlike some federal programs that Nevada also misses out on (we are last in securing census-based federal dollars), there is no required funding match by the state for these programs. Rather, to be eligible for these grants, community colleges and their local partners need only to apply.

So while none of this money will be flowing into Nevada’s community colleges, Salt Lake City Community College and Rio Salado College in Arizona are receiving part of a $20 million grant for training and workforce development to help unemployed workers learn new job skills.

In contrast, the community colleges in Nevada are unable to apply for these grants because they lack the local governance structure and ties to the local business community that these grants presume.

“Only in Nevada” used to be a source of pride that captured the Silver State’s culture and spirit; now it is a liability that carries a steep price tag that undermines the state’s economy.

While making structural changes to the governance of Nevada’s community colleges would not require any additional revenue, and instead would unleash access to millions in federal dollars, those who we entrust to oversee the state’s system of higher education seem unwilling to even countenance such a reform. At a recent Board of Regents meeting, Regent Mark Doubrava brought up the issue of severing the state’s community colleges from NSHE, which was dismissed by many of his colleagues. Sadly, it appears that the priorities of some regents are to protect their fiefdom instead of thinking about how Nevada’s institutions of higher education can be best aligned to serve the state’s many needs.

Fortunately, Nevada can use the experiences of other states such as North Carolina, that have made this transition, to help guide us through this reform. In the short term, the Legislature can pass the state funds allocated to the community colleges through their respective county governments. In exchange, the counties cover maintenance costs while a system of community college districts is implemented and funding mechanisms established. These districts would be separate entities, governed by an independently elected board, and given fiscal independence. Each district would have the power to determine its own budget, set its own rates, and if a local community wanted to invest in its community colleges, the districts would have the authority to issue bond debt.

As our regional partners continue to pull away from us economically, we can no longer pretend that our state’s business-friendly environment by itself is going to lure new investment that revitalizes Nevada’s economy. No, if we are going to attract new businesses to Nevada or grow those businesses that are already here, then we’d better make sure that our small government is smart government. There is no better place to start than with the governance of higher education.

John Lee is a Democratic state senator from Las Vegas.

From the Las Vegas Sun online (click here). 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

“Our state’s business-friendly environment by itself is not going to lure new investments”. This statement should be in the back of every local politicians mind. Why would companies want to set up shop and have to move their employees to a city that does not support education, or family life? Furthermore, would it not be more cost effective if a business could simply set up shop in Las Vegas and have qualified applicants to select from rather than moving employees in from out of state? Many more aspects of supporting a “business-friendly environment” must be looked at in order to diversify how Las Vegas makes money.
Michael UOP HUM114