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UNLV

[Neon Eden]

Higher education’s weaknesses are UNLV’s opportunities

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Hard at work: An affordable, academically rigorous UNLV could transform Las Vegas.
Photo: Steve Marcus

College isn’t worth it. That was the message from a Pew Research Center study earlier this year that reported 57 percent of Americans think the higher education system doesn’t give students a good value for the thousands of dollars in tuition and expenses they spend. Seventy-five percent said college is too expensive, and two-thirds of respondents who didn’t continue their education beyond high school cited financial reasons for leaving the classroom.

This is good and bad news for the Valley. If you think of cities that were once struggling but are now thriving, such as Pittsburgh, Boston or Seattle, all of them are anchored by outstanding universities. UNLV, meanwhile, has faced budget cuts of $73 million and staffing cuts of 700, while its students have confronted tuition increases of 73 percent in the last four years. Professors have had their salaries and benefits cut. Programs have been eliminated and professors lost to competing universities. Morale is flagging.

But American higher education’s significant weaknesses give UNLV an opportunity to distinguish itself. To begin with, relative to the Cal system or private schools, UNLV is cheap.

A less obvious but more powerful opportunity for distinction: Be sure our graduates are well-educated.

This may sound obvious, but Columbia sociologist Shamus Khan notes in Good magazine that college students nationwide don’t study very much—just 14 hours per week. And, probably as a consequence, they don’t learn very much, either. Is this true at UNLV? I hope not, but I have no reason to believe we buck the trend.

Many of our students are the first generation to go to college, and many received a mediocre education from the Clark County School District. So it would be a remarkable—but doable—achievement to become known for an undergraduate education that was affordable but also rigorous and exciting.

Too often during the grueling budget debate, the discussion has been bogged down in determining how many college graduates we would need to produce how many new widgets for Las Vegas. Sure, a university’s relationship to the economy is important, and UNLV President Neal Smatresk is committed to fostering that relationship in key areas, like hospitality, renewable energy, water, information technology and various engineering fields.

But lost in all the talk about UNLV as an engine of economic growth is a simple fact: We would be better off in all ways if we had a more educated populace. And by educated, I don’t mean someone with a diploma.

I mean some facility with basic calculus, statistics and economics; an understanding of the laws of physics and the natural world; some conception of Hamlet’s dilemma, the philosophical underpinnings of the Constitution and the history of the human race. More important than any specific curricula is a broader attitude of curiosity, critical thinking and ethical framing.

Education is, of course, no panacea. See Nazi Germany for a highly educated, monstrously evil culture. But in America today, the data is clear: Educated people and the cities they live in are far better off—and not just financially—than the rest.

What would it take for UNLV to develop a reputation for academic rigor? A focus on teaching in certain disciplines, which would de-emphasize research, especially in fields like philosophy or English, where research dollars are scarce compared to science and engineering.

Smatresk said the city needs a quality, top-tier research university. True. And he noted correctly that professors should maintain some research relevance in their fields to be effective teachers. Also true. But he also said he more or less agreed with a vision of better education, even if that means instruction would trump research in some disciplines.

In fact, as Smatresk noted, UNLV is already moving in that direction with the creation of a two-year program that would seek to develop what Smatresk calls “core competencies,” including communication skills; quantitative and qualitative reasoning; the ability to live in a highly diverse and highly interdependent world; and a broad understanding of arts, sciences and social sciences.

More smart people. Less dumb people. Elitist? Yes, but also a simple public policy solution to our many problems.

J. Patrick Coolican is a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Follow him on Twitter @jpcoolican or email him at patrick.coolican@lasvegassun.com. His Neon Eden radio show airs Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. on 91.5 FM.
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