Tuition meeting draws small crowd, big debate
Klaich, Vice Provost field student concerns on fee hikes
For freshman resident assistant Elsha Harris-Yolanda, the issue of raising tuition is a problem with a human face.
She sees it whenever her fellow dorm students cry to her as they pack up their belongings, unable to afford living and learning at UNLV any longer.
On the verge of tears at a town hall meeting Wednesday, Harris-Yolanda pleaded with Higher Education Chancellor Dan Klaich and Vice Provost John Valery White to reverse the Nevada System of Higher Education’s slow march to a 17 percent tuition increase that could be approved by the Board of Regents as early as June.
She said that the rising cost of tuition is placing an overwhelming strain on students, some of whom are on the first floor of Claudine Williams Hall, where she lives and works. She’s already had to watch two students pack up and leave this semester.
The message from Harris-Yolanda and the handful of UNLV undergraduates who spoke at the Student Union on Wednesday was clear: Tuition hikes are becoming a serious barrier to students pursuing higher education in southern Nevada.
“For many [residents] that are out of state … living on campus is their only choice,” said Harris-Yolanda, who spoke on behalf of her residents that opposed the tuition proposal. “They shouldn’t have to take on the extra cost of 17 percent over the next four years.”
“Most of my residents, with this tuition increase, won’t see that diploma,” she said. “They’ll have to end up transferring home because they won’t be able to afford it anymore.”
Spikes in tuition have become a familiar sight for students as NSHE lobbies the state Legislature for more financial support. Year after year, efforts by faculty and higher education officials have been unsuccessful in the face of the statewide economic downturn.
The latest tuition hike came in December 2011 when undergraduates were slapped with an 8 percent increase. A survey conducted last semester revealed that further tuition hikes would negatively impact half of the 646 respondents who participated.
White and Klaich spent much of the meeting doing damage control, assuring the approximately 30 students in the audience that the added funds would be used to bolster student services.
Members of CSUN, UNLV’s undergraduate student government, were quick to criticize the justification, claiming that students haven’t seen tangible improvements in student services since NSHE officials made similar claims to convince former CSUN president Sarah Saenz to support the 8 percent hike in 2011.
A mother of a newly-enrolled UNLV student told the panel that it took her and her daughter roughly 10 hours of standing in lines just to get through the admissions process. Long lines and wait times at the financial aid office are a particular sore spot for students.
White acknowledged that the pervasive cynicism among students was something university officials would have to work hard to reverse. He assured students that administrators had already stretched resources to the breaking point trying to make sure that instructors were teaching classes that students desperately need.
The shortage of sections of required classes available to students who need them to progress in their degree program is a chronic problem at UNLV. Students at the meeting said that they sometimes have to fight over limited spots in class sections. If they don’t get in, they often have to wait multiple semesters to get a chance to take the class again.
Klaich and White said that the money raised from possible tuition hikes would go into easing problems like this. By increasing tuition and restoring faculty pay, they claimed students would no longer have to worry about financial aid and graduating on time.
After several students mentioned UNLV’s aspirations of becoming a premier research institution, Klaich and White were quick to point out that support for those goals will be pursued at the state level in the next session of the Nevada Legislature.
“These tuition proposals are about how we can continue to do our regular work,” White said. “There should be no fear that those initiatives … will be borne on the backs of students.”
But President Neal Smatresk asserted in September that a Tier-1 research institution status can only be achieved with a combination of state support and tuition hikes. Three months after his statements, Klaich met with college and university leaders to propose possible tuition increases.
Klaich, however, was candid about the current state of UNLV.
“I am not satisfied with the quality of this institution as we sit here in January of 2014,” he said. “I doubt that there is anybody in the administration of this institution that is. If they were, they wouldn’t be talking about moving [UNLV to Tier-1 status].”
But students argued that Tier-1 status was unrelated to problems like the lack of available class sections, with some, particularly members of CSUN, demanding that the university focus on providing existing services before it launches an expensive plan to increase research output.
CSUN marketing director Thomas McAllister suggested that NSHE put a moratorium on tuition hikes until fiscal support from the state Legislature is guaranteed.
Klaich said that the system dragging its heels when it should be focusing on growth would be disastrous in the long term.
“Somebody’s got to break the circle,” Klaich said. “If I followed the natural logic of that, I’m fearful that the state of Nevada would go nowhere.”
If NSHE is stonewalled by the Legislature in the next session, however, Klaich said the system would have to “rethink our position.”
Despite the onset of possible tuition hikes, both education leaders argued that the cost of attending higher education in Nevada was still relatively cheap compared to other states.
Klaich said the decision to pursue further tuition hikes came after multiple meetings of the Tuition and Fees Committee came to the conclusion that a “shared sacrifice” was necessary for the state’s higher education institutions to progress. The committee also urged officials to stay “consistent” in setting tuition rates.
After the meeting, Harris-Yolanda said she felt that NSHE has lost sight of the human impact that tuition increases have. She said it felt as if education officials look at students as “dollar signs” rather than people.
“A lot of them take it as a sign of defeat,” she said about watching a resident leave the dorms. “She had felt as if she let herself down, that she had let her parents down.”
“This isn’t just a money thing. This is people’s lives,” she said.
The NSHE Board of Regents will discuss tuition hikes when they meet at the College of Southern Nevada in March, though an actual vote on the proposal would follow in a later meeting, possibly as early as June.