Public higher education in Nevada needs a basic re-thinking

Business model is ‘busted'

By Steven Miller
  • Tuesday, August 26, 2008

No doubt it's impolitic to say so, but the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) is a lumbering, brain-dead white elephant.

Furthermore, it ought to be put out of its misery – and quickly.

One reason was discussed recently in this space:  that when state governments increase subsidies for public higher education, they actually damage per-capita personal income growth for their citizens. In other words, the "beneficial economic stimulus" pitch regularly used by NSHE lobbyists speaking to state legislators and business leaders is false. Used repeatedly, it really constitutes a special-interest fraud on the public.

Although NSHE apologists love to paint Nevada's choice as one between education and no education, in reality it is not. Instead, it's a choice between the current inefficient, unaccountable, highly politicized and socialistic system sitting atop several educational institutions – and an alternative that would free those institutions and bring higher efficiency, quality and productivity to Nevada students and taxpayers both.

A second reason for putting NSHE out of its misery is signaled by its prolonged insistence on ignoring the contemporary revolution in educational technology and communications. This blindness at the level of long-term planning reveals an institution that, behind its public-relations masks, is – like so many government bureaucracies – essentially dysfunctional and seriously in need of privatization.

A bit of background here: The significance of the worldwide revolution in educational technology is profound for Nevadans. On the one hand, via the Internet, it puts exceptional education possibilities into almost every home in the state, and with no NSHE middleman. On the other hand, it also means that reasons to physically attend NSHE institutions, and purchase one's educational services there, are rapidly diminishing.

Already, anyone in Nevada who desires to can take classes online from outstanding professors around the world who win awards specifically for their teaching ability. The Teaching Company website, for example, at, currently sells such courses online. But more is emerging quickly. See, for example, iTunes University, where you can download all the course materials, including audio and video recordings of classroom instruction, of courses from Yale, Duke, Stanford and UC Cal Berkeley and hundreds of other top schools.

Given this competitive reality, how long are students going to pay to suffer through the halting English of some foreign-national grad student, merely to allow Chancellor Jim Rogers to continue attempting to transform the sow's ear of UNLV into the silk purse of a "research university?"

Similarly, how long are Nevada taxpayers going to be asked to keep subsidizing such an obtuse vision, oriented to pyramid-construction?

The reality is that NSHE's 15th Century education model – one presuming that instructors and students all must be physically present in the same place at the same time – is now almost completely obsolete. And that, in turn, means the NSHE "business model" is also basically busted. Most likely, only the few areas where Nevada higher-ed institutions already have a competitive advantage – say, hotel-services at UNLV, or mining at UNR – will be exempt from the coming nation-wide higher-ed industry shakeout.

Yes, there will always be some kind of market for the residential college experience. But the massive expansion of the new worldwide higher-ed marketplace is going to powerfully drive down instructional costs (and thus demand for the average state college product), while driving up the income of, and demand for, academia's teaching stars.

These latter individuals will become quite wealthy, as students all over the world, including Nevada, subscribe to their courses – unhindered by any restriction on how many bodies can fit into a lecture hall at a particular time. Less talented instructors will need to find other work. And while there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth in this great new sorting-out, genuinely motivated students, and learning itself, will both be better off.

For now, of course, Nevada's highly politicized, government-subsidized system keeps myopically pretending that nothing important is changing. Yet the system's problems are fundamental, built into its very structure. In truth, the entire rationale for Nevada public higher-ed needs rethinking, right from ground zero.

It remains to be seen how much of Silver State taxpayers' recent coerced investment in NSHE will eventually turn out to be a dead-weight loss.

But it will be substantial.

Steven Miller is vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. This article was originally published with the Las Vegas Business Press.

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