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Funding formula falls flat 

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Nevada higher education faces unequal money distribution

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People in government who wonder why outsiders are often hostile to its machinations and disillusioned with their representatives need look no further than the funding formula that dictates how the higher education system is funded in Nevada. It can only be described as convoluted. It is also wildly unfair, considering the burden it places on students at UNLV who subsidize the education of their fellows at other universities across Nevada.

“We need to keep it fairly simple,” UNLV’s President Neal Sematresk told the Faculty Senate.  Boy, ain’t that the truth. Instead of laundering UNLV’s money through the state general fund, why not incentivize the university to recruit by allowing it to keep each and every dollar of tuition it takes from students, particularly those from out of state?

One might think, especially if one is from a state that isn’t Nevada, that their out of state fees assessed will go to help educate them. Well, that would be a mistake. Those fees are subtracted from the support that the state gives to the university. When the university loses state funding equal to the amount paid by an out-of-state student, what reason does the university have to recruit highly qualified, non-resident students to its hospitality programs?  The answer is none.

The Southern Nevada student might think that their college degree is subsidized by the state at the same rate as other students in Nevada — after all, students from across the state are equal and entitled to the same education from the state government.  But again, this student would be mistaken.

For every dollar in tuition raised by UNLV, the state gives an additional $1.24.  For every dollar in tuition raised by UNR, the state gives it an additional $2.68.  For every dollar in tuition raised by the Great Basin College primarily located in Elko, the state gushes forth with a whopping $3.58, nearly three times the amount given to UNLV.

Why? One might ask.  Good luck getting the answer. The formula is so complex that the Review-Journal reports that there are few people who understand how it works. There is nothing simple or straightforward about the funding formula. It has, unfortunately, come to symbolize the many bizarre, byzantine regulations promulgated by state and federal institutions. It is one of the many reasons why folks are dissatisfied with their government.

There is no good reason to justify this inequity. It is largely due to the North’s ability to stick together as a region and the influence of the recently deceased former majority leader of the Nevada state Senate, Bill Raggio.

Thankfully, UNLV students have a sane advocate in the legislature for their interests — and he has simplicity and fairness on his side as he seeks to re-evaluate the funding formula for the state’s institutions of higher education.  We all owe a big thanks to John Lee of North Las Vegas for raising this issue.

We’ve been able to accomplish great things here even in the midst of a budget crisis and large cuts.  The faculty has produced amazing works of research and Coach Rice has lifted the Runnin’ Rebels to a top 20 team.  We have a team representing our city in the Solar Decathlon, which is a competition open to universities across the world.  Our debate team is in the top 10.  Several of our schools are nationally recognized in their respective fields.

The same can be said for many of the programs at UNR — but can you imagine where UNLV would be with an equal funding playing field?  What we could do with a return to research graduate assistantships? How we could free the minds of our students to not worry about being unable to gain access to introductory, required courses?

I hope we’re able to find out soon.

There are major problems that nearly everyone at UNLV knows about when it comes to the administrative side of the school. One might say the lack of accountability in this area has caused a personnel crisis. I am yet hesitant to say that we’d be able to turn the school around without a serious reformation of the secondary education students receive in Clark County.  The administration certainly needs to hold its employees and departments more accountable.

But maybe — just maybe — we can shock the world here in Las Vegas.  No one would have thought even 50 years ago that this small desert outpost of hookers, gamblers and drunks would be home to the many awesome things it is now.  If the state gets this one right and sticks to the principles it knows to be true — fairness and simple straightforwardness — we might be able to remake UNLV into more than just a basketball powerhouse.

We might be able to capitalize on the existing successful programs — hospitality, for example, which is ranked as the No. 2 program in the nation — and someday make liars out of the folks who say that this isn’t a great place to live because of the educational options available.

For now, sadly, it is mostly true that we lag behind in this regard.  The state has been complicit in it for years through the current funding formula and the refusal to take public education reform seriously.

But here, in these next few months, we have a real opportunity to do right, to make good and to move ahead. I hope the state legislature won’t waste it.

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