How the state of Nevada is screwing UNLV, one dollar at a time

Illustration: Spencer Holladay

Gerry Bomotti, the senior vice president for finance and business at UNLV, recalls a budget meeting during the last legislative session in which an elected official asked, “If fees are raised, does the university get to keep that money?” The answer given and accepted: Yes.

The real answer? Not exactly.

Welcome to the world of higher education funding, Nevada-style. It’s a politically charged, convoluted black hole fueled by an algorithm few understand and governed by a body of people who largely don’t have college degrees themselves. In Nevada, “yeses” are “maybes,” students are taxpayers and educational institutions are playing a zero-sum game. Thousands of people are suffering because of it, but the suffering is not equal. Not by a long shot.

One institution gets systematically shortchanged: UNLV.

Each of the seven institutions within the Nevada System of Higher Education raises money through student tuition and fees. Combined, that totaled more than $182 million last year. That chunk of change is poured into the state’s general fund, that big (but getting smaller) pool of money that pays for prisons, human services and welfare, among other things. Then, the government allocates money to the educational institutions based on budgets the state legislators set for them.

If that sounds straightforward, it really isn’t. This practice of colleges and universities surrendering tuition and fee money to the state is unusual and highly criticized. “It essentially turns students into taxpayers,” says Gregory Brown, UNLV history professor and chair of the Faculty Senate. “Sometimes it seems like they’re the only ones paying.”

Most states that once followed a similar model have left it behind, likely because it penalizes the institutions generating the most money from tuition and fees. Here’s an analogy even a remedial student should understand: The state determines that Institution A needs a budget of $1 million to operate. Institution A raises $200,000 through tuition and fees, so the state gives it $800,000. If, however, Institution A can raise $400,000 through tuition and fees, it would receive just $600,000 from the state. Translation: The institution has no incentive to earn its own money, because it will always end up with the same amount.

NSHE Chancellor Dan Klaich weighs in: “One of the things we keep hearing is that higher ed needs to become more self-sustaining or more entrepreneurial. That’s code for ‘raise your own budget.’ Well, if the pressure is on institutions to raise their own budgets, there shouldn’t be disincentive within the formula, and there is.”

At UNLV, 15.1 percent of students are paying out-of-state (aka: more expensive) tuition, compared to 9.7 percent at UNR. This higher percentage means UNLV winds up receiving a disproportionately smaller share of state funds. One analysis, based on fiscal year 2009 numbers, shows UNLV generating 48 percent of all tuition in the higher ed system but receiving only 34 percent of the state’s higher ed budget. Meanwhile, UNR generated 27 percent of the higher ed tuition stream that year, but also accounted for 34 percent of the higher ed budget.

Another way to look at it: Based on the 2010 budget, UNR received $9,477 per student, while UNLV received only $7,564 per student—that’s $1,913 less. Even more disturbing: For every dollar in tuition raised by UNLV in 2010, it received $1.24 back. UNR received $2.68, and the numbers only grow higher for the state’s community colleges, topping out with Great Basin College receiving a striking $3.58 for every dollar it raises.

Any way you cut it, UNLV’s slice of the pie doesn’t looking very appetizing.

the funding formula is complex. A national research company, MGT America, evaluated Nevada’s funding model for overall inefficiencies and noted that most of the Board of Regents members, legislators and citizens they interviewed did not understand it. In fact, MGT noted that several legislators mentioned that they believe inequities exist but don’t understand enough about the underlying formula to grasp whether or not those beliefs are valid. “They probably don’t know enough [about the formula] to know what policy changes could benefit the system,” Bomotti says.

UNLV political science professor David Damore has looked at the state government’s treatment of higher education and is highly critical not only of the legislators’ lack of understanding but also of their commitment to education as a whole. “The people in the legislature aren’t exactly the most educated bunch. Less than half of them have a degree,” he says. “So, they may not really see the value of education themselves. That’s horrible. Education has never been a priority here.”

What people can and do understand about the funding formula is that it breaks financial needs into critical areas such as instruction, student services and operation/maintenance of campuses. The last area proves crucial in explaining the differences between UNR and UNLV’s per-student funding. Elliot Parker, a UNR economics professor, evaluated NHSE formula inequities in 2009 and discovered that, if you eliminate operation/maintenance and specialty schools (i.e. UNR’s medical school), the two research universities are funded almost equally. Then, the question becomes: Why would UNR require so much additional money for its physical campus?

The answer given: It is twice as large and most of its buildings are older. It’s an argument many at UNLV feel is shortsighted.

“You have to remember that most of our buildings were built for an institution that we no longer are,” says Bomotti, citing the major enrollment growth at UNLV in its short 50-year history.

Facilities like Wright Hall and the Chemistry Building were built to accommodate the classes and missions of a much smaller institution. An updated funding formula might take this into consideration and allocate more to institutions forced to accommodate more than their original structures intended, but Nevada’s does not, Bomotti says. Similarly, the formula fails to take into account renovations that have made UNR’s older buildings more cost-efficient and in need of less operational funding. Similarly, there’s a dispute over how the formula handles the climate differences and varied costs of heating and cooling.

Of course, one cannot explain away the relatively giant chunk of money Great Basin College gets by looking at its square footage. This case brings up another controversial topic in education funding: rural versus urban. Basically, it comes down to economy of scale. A larger, urban university is almost always cheaper to run, per student, than a small, rural college like GBC in Elko. Therefore the formula allocates extra money to the rural institution.

“There is some truth to this,” explains Damore, “but also, you could say, ‘The market has spoken.’ People in government are always saying, ‘If it’s too expensive, it shouldn’t be provided.’ Well, if for every nickel they raise at Great Basin they get a quarter, that isn’t sustainable.”

So how did we get into this mess?

Some believe the inequities are a by-product of the NSHE inability to keep up with its own institutional changes and growth. Consider not only the overall rise in enrollment, but also CSN’s maturation into an institution offering four-year degrees and the creation of Nevada State College in 2002. All of these expansions require tweaks to the funding formula and sometimes those tweaks come with unintended consequences.

“For a long time the mission was simply to grow, and that isn’t good strategic planning,” Brown says.

Others are downright cynical, arguing that it comes down to north versus south in Nevada. A longtime northern senator, Bill Raggio, spearheaded the creation of the formula, they point out, so it may be no coincidence that it came with northern biases.

Klaich, a graduate of UNR who participated in the state’s formula studies in the mid-’80s, acknowledges that many of his peers believe a northern bias exists, but declines to say whether he’s seen proof of it himself. “The concept of equity has a tendency to be very cloudy and very emotional,” he says. “There does seem to be a strong belief that there’s an inherit inequity that benefits the north. It’s absolutely critical that we get together as a state and lay that on the table.”

The opportunity to do that is now. During the past legislative session, a committee was created to re-evaluate the higher education funding formula. Made up of members of the Senate, Assembly, Board of Regents and the chancellor’s office, along with a representative from the governor’s office, the committee is tasked with comparing Nevada with other states, considering factors like performance-based incentives for institutions and retention of registration fees and non-resident tuition.

“This is overdue,” Klaich says. “Looking at all of these issues is critical. If we don’t deal with these issues head on, there will be growing dissatisfaction.”

Brown agrees. “We have a crisis of confidence,” he says. “People fundamentally believe they are getting no value in education.”

years ago, the average rebel knew next to nothing about the funding formula. All they knew was that their tuition was one of the cheapest in the country. Now, after years of budget cuts and increased tuition and fees, the student population finally seems to be focused on the funding formula big picture, rather than fights to save individual departments.

Carrie Sampson is one such student. A doctoral candidate in the public affairs college, she complete a master’s degree at Syracuse and a bachelor’s at UNR. When she began working at UNLV two years ago, Sampson received then-chancellor Jim Rogers’ budget cut emails and became increasingly involved in protests. In March she helped organize the Shut Down the Strip rally for higher education. In the process, she discovered the inequities in per-student funding.

“I’d always heard UNR was a better school, but I never knew why,” she recalls. “Now, I think, well, if they are funded more, of course they’ll be.”

Sampson says if she weren’t rooted to Las Vegas through mortgage and marriage (her husband is a UNLV law student), she would have gone elsewhere for her higher education. In fact, she still might move. “If education keeps going this way in Nevada, we will wind up leaving when we graduate,” she says. “I think that’s the story for a lot of people.”

What might UNLV become if the state allowed it to keep its own tuition and fees? Bomotti’s staff crunched the numbers and found that if UNLV had been allowed to keep its non-resident tuition, it would have had $17 million in additional funds last year. How many professor buyouts, cut courses and axed departments might that have spared? And going forward, what could that additional revenue mean in building the institution into a reputable university with the types of facilities needed in a major metropolitan area and international hub like Las Vegas?

Robert Lang of the Brookings Institute suggests comparing UNR and UNLV to the University of Arizona and Arizona State University, respectively. “Arizona is a lot like us—they’re a Western state, they have a libertarian tradition. You can compare us with them,” he says. For a long time, UofA was considered the better of the two research universities, but the state government recognized that ASU was in the state’s largest city and that it would behoove them to have a good school near Phoenix. “Mission accomplished,” Lang says “They did it. It took money. It took an extra infusion of money.” Yet, the benefits are obvious. Good universities stimulate the regional economy. They make cities more enticing to higher-quality businesses that need college-educated, white-collar professionals.

Were Nevada to follow a similar model, Lang says, Las Vegas could grow into a headquarters for online gaming’s ancillary industries—media services, management, information technologies. At the very least, the state might recognize the value UNLV could bring to the local economy as a whole.

And if the inequities aren’t addressed?

There is no specific UNLV doomsday prediction. If there were, legislators would have been forced to address these issues years ago. Instead, the slow chipping away of resources, which has flown under the radar for so long, will only continue. If it does, well, don’t expect the percentage of Clark County residents with bachelor degrees (21.3 percent) to rise. Don’t expect an influx of new businesses to sprout or relocate to our city. Don’t be surprised when K-12’s best and brightest decide to further their education out of state. And don’t be surprised when they stay there after graduation.

Full Disclosure: I graduated from UNLV, am active on its student newspaper’s advisory board, and I may be a card-carrying member of its journalism college’s alumni association. (I can’t remember if I renewed my yearly registration. Whoops.)

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