(Michael Chamberlain/Nevada Business Coalition) – As the fight over the budget continues, the Nevada State Legislature held a meeting of a Joint Committee on Education to discuss funding for higher education in the state. Those within the system benefiting from taxpayer subsidies once again cried wolf over potential cuts but, as in the past, it is unlikely the wolf is at the door.
The cuts to higher education funding occur after a decade of significant funding increases. The Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) obtained and released the Nevada System of Higher Education’s (NSHE) own budget figures earlier this week. The document reveals that NSHE’s overall funding more than doubled from 2000-2010, increasing nearly 90% after adjusting for inflation.
Per-student contributions from the state general fund (from the taxpayers) increased 27% during that time adjusted for inflation. That figure includes the reductions of the last budget cycle. From 2000-2009, per-student subsidies from the taxpayers in Nevada increased nearly 40% on an inflation-adjusted basis. Taxpayers poured money into higher education during the 2000′s and the governor’s proposed budget merely returns taxpayer support to levels of earlier in the decade.
NSHE Chancellor Dan Klaich has admitted that he and others in higher ed have acted like Chicken Littles when faced with possible cuts in the past.
“I think we have been guilty of hyperbole in the past where, you know, we get the first dollar of a cut and we would like you to believe that the sky is falling,” said Dan Klaich, chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, which comprises Nevada’s universities and community college. “Here we are a few years later and lo and behold the sky is right where it started out. It has not fallen in.”
As the NSHE’s own data shows, until very recently no actual cuts had ever occurred, only reductions in the system’s requested increases. Once again, the taxpayers are given warnings that the higher education sky is falling unless they can dig even deeper into their own pockets – pockets that have been emptied by the current recession.
One of the recurring themes of the “sky is falling” crowd is the idea that spending for higher education is an “investment” that will generate positive returns and pay back to the state and taxpayers more than was put in. The implication is that we can avoid future economic and budget crises by increasing funding to education.
During the hearings yesterday, a representative of the Nevada Student Alliance presented a graphic attempting to illustrate this (see p. 19). It stated, “The regions most able to attract high-tech industry, are ranked among the least tax favorable.” (Excuse their poor punctuation, which was evidently not a typo because a similar error occurred elsewhere on the same slide.) Most of the states they highlighted (California, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey) are themselves suffering severe budget crises. Though they may be successful in attracting high-tech businesses, these states’ investments don’t appear to be paying off for their taxpayers.
Geoff Lawrence of NPRI testified as well. He commented on the fiscal prudence of heavily subsidizing higher education. Resources are spent inefficiently because the users, the students, do not realize the actual cost. Therefore, some (though certainly not all) students may not apply themselves as well as they should or they may choose fields of study for which the job market and their future earning potential are poor. This results in poor returns on taxpayer investment.
As if on cue, via Twitter we discover that Social Work students from UNLV are preparing to rally in support of increased taxpayer subsidies for higher education. This is a field of study that is hardly preparing these students for the high-tech jobs of the 21st century. The private sector job market is not robust and future earnings are likely to be modest compared to those of graduates of other programs. It is unlikely that Nevada’s taxpayers will recoup their “investments” in many of these students, yet these young people are forceful advocates for requiring even more and greater subsidies from the taxpayers.
The taxpayers of the State of Nevada cannot afford more investments with negative returns. As the Chicken Littles at NSHE parade in front of lawmakers and the public, the State’s suffering families and businesses insist that higher education prioritize and determine how to maximize existing dollars for the greatest returns for the State’s economy and to taxpayers rather than continue to insist on ever more subsidies.
(Michael Chamberlain is Executive Director of Nevada Business Coalition.)