Obsessed with inputs

Education establishment too focused on spending levels

By Patrick R. Gibbons
  • Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The focus on inputs rather than results that so often characterizes Big Government gives government officials and the public, both, a distorted picture of reality.

It also empties our pocketbooks.

Here in Nevada, one of the largest state expenditures is education, where more than 50 percent of the state's general fund is dedicated.

Over the current biennium the legislature has authorized the appropriation of over $3.6 billion to K-12 education and $1.6 billion to higher education. However, the total of all education spending — state, local and federal — in the Silver State will likely exceed $12 billion.

Unfortunately, the results suggest that the Silver State will, as it has in the past, waste millions of those dollars by continuing to provide a subpar and ineffective system of K-college education.

Since Nevada's K-12 per-pupil expenditures are below the national average, big spenders often try to argue that more spending will improve results. Regarding higher education, however, they can make no such claim.

New data in the U.S. Department of Education's National Center of Education Statistics' higher education data project is informative in this regard. It has allowed The Education Trust to update its college-results database with information on spending and graduation rates for more than 550 public universities.

For Nevada higher education, unsurprisingly, little has changed. Focusing on how much to spend, rather than how effectively to spend it, Nevada's public universities have failed to make improvements.

The latest data on higher-education spending comes from the 2005-06 academic year, while the latest graduation-rate data comes from the 2006-07 academic year.

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas saw spending increase from $15,183 per pupil in 2005 to $16,537 in 2006 — an 8.9 percent increase. UNLV's spending ranks 214th out of 558 public universities (excluding military academies) with the median spending at $14,320 per pupil. The results, though slightly improved, are not impressive. UNLV graduates just 40.6 percent of its students within six years, while graduating just 13.4 percent of student within four years. This graduation rate places UNLV 338th out of 553 public universities.

The story is similar up north at the University of Nevada, Reno. It saw spending increase from $29,003 per pupil in 2005 to $30,290 per pupil in 2006 — an increase of 4.4 percent. Due to a new calculation formula (taking into account satellite campuses of major universities) UNR's spending rank fell from 40th in the nation to 62nd. UNR's considerable spending, however, does not translate into impressive graduation rates. In fact, graduation rates declined. UNR was only able to graduate 46.7 percent of its students in six years, and 13.7 percent within four years. UNR's graduation rate places it 259th out of 553 public universities.

Contrary to what Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Daniel Klaich may say, higher education in the Silver State does not need additional funds. In fact, UNR receives more in state appropriations per pupil than the University of Texas, which is regarded as the 15th best public university in America.

Adding more inputs to a broken system will not improve higher education. We have enough intelligent and dedicated professionals in higher education. Nevada just needs some innovative, market-oriented reforms to make its higher-ed system work.

To examine the new database of higher education results, click on either of the links below:

Higher Education Spending
Higher Education Graduation Rates

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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