Real solutions for higher education

Patrick Gibbons

Jim Rogers – chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education – has been hitting the keyboard a lot lately, typing up legions of memos on Nevada's "broken" revenue structure, the need for new taxes, requests to borrow billions, and the necessity of increasing funding to education.

Rogers has become bold enough to not just demand increased gaming and mining taxes but to demand an income tax as well.

In reality, the charge that Nevada's revenue stream is broken is quite doubtful. Nevada, after all, was the only state without a personal and corporate income tax that, at the end of FY 2008, also faced a budgetary shortfall. Alarmists like Jim Rogers try to scare and fool policymakers and citizens alike by warning that 34 percent cuts are coming and that any cut to higher education would do irreparable harm. This is total nonsense: General fund revenue is only down 9.1 percent from last year.

According to Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, $257.3 million has been cut from education. That sounds like a very large sum of money before one recalls that the state's last biennial education budget was $4.9 billion. Buckley's cuts represent only 7.1 percent of the general fund appropriations to education and only 5.2 percent of the total budget for education.

Of those cuts, only $85 million has been from higher education. This is a pittance considering that the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' 2006 operating budget was $552 million, and that University of Nevada, Reno President Milton Glick recently stated that his school's operating budget this year was $550 million.

If Nevada's only colleges were UNR and UNLV, the higher education cuts so far would amount to less than 8.5 percent of their latest spending budgets. In fact, the spending is spread over the two universities and multiple colleges. It is hard to believe that Jim Rogers and his bureaucrats can find nowhere else to cut – especially since, for every student enrolled, UNLV spends approximately $21,500 while UNR spends over $32,000.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (commonly known as Virginia Tech) faced a budgetary problem a few years ago, and it figured out how to solve the problem rationally. Unfortunately, many universities do not address budget situations rationally, often ignoring the cost of educating students and/or the relative demand for courses. Budget cuts also often elicit internecine warfare among academicians.

Virginia Tech's math department solved its problem when facing budget cuts by leasing a bankrupt department store's retail space and converting it into a math computer lab. The price was $3 a square foot. Compare that to UNLV's recent addition, Greenspun Hall, which cost $780 a square foot.

Virginia Tech didn't stop there. Dr. Michael Williams, a math professor at the university, designed computer learning modules that allowed students to attend the lab and take the course without the need of a full-time professor always present. The module also gives students quizzes, and if students answer questions incorrectly, the computer directs them to the appropriate material. Class time is marked by students learning at their own pace, rather than the pace of the professor's lecture – and students are free to stay and learn as long as they like. The classroom is also monitored by graduate students who assist students when necessary, freeing up the higher-paid, full-time professors to teach higher-level math.

According to Kevin Carey of the independent think tank Education Sector, Virginia Tech reduced the cost of educating students in some math courses by as much as 75 percent.

Virginia Tech and Dr. Williams figured out a way to reduce classroom costs while lowering teaching costs simultaneously. If technology can bring down the cost of so many goods and services, and the cost of education at Virginia Tech, why can't this work in Nevada?

Jim Rogers wants a tax increase not because it is necessary for the state to provide basic services but because he rejects accountability for the wisdom and efficiency, or lack of it, with which he spends the public's money. It's much easier to pretend every dollar the state spends is important than to make hard, adult decisions regarding budget priorities or to engineer innovative 21st Century education solutions.

Nevada's system of higher education needs budget-reducing and innovative education solutions so that it can pass the savings on to students and taxpayers. If we are to make education both effective and affordable, we simply cannot afford to allow higher education tuition and fees to continue increasing faster than inflation and personal income growth.

Higher tuition and higher taxes are not a sustainable solution for Nevada.

Patrick R. Gibbons is a researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.