Education headlines conference on state economic future

Universities will drive industry but two-year colleges are basis for job growth, leaders say

NV 2.0. Courtesy Photo.

One national education leader believes Nevada’s community colleges are the answer to the state’s job shortage, and he says they may be the future of our economy.

At “Nevada 2.0: New Economies for a Sustainable Future,” a conference held Jan. 7, state Lieutenant Gov. Brian Krolicki told a capacity crowd in the Student Union Ballroom that Nevada’s universities will be central to the state’s futures in technology commercialization, bioscience and renewable energy.

But according to state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, such a vision necessitates a focus on education not only for those who will create new technologies as doctors and engineers, but for those who will fill the jobs created in Nevada’s new industries.

“We cannot grow our economy without embracing the fundamental necessity of providing an educated workforce and of growing that educated workforce right here in our state,” Horsford said.

He asserted that in order to produce educated workers locally, Nevada must prioritize schools in the state budget.

“We must match our restricted revenues to those programs that most likely improve our chances for economic success,” he said, “namely K-12 and higher education.”

Stan Jones is founder and president of Complete College America, a national nonprofit aimed at increasing the number of Americans who hold college degrees and to closing attainment gaps for traditionally underrepresented populations.

He told public- and private-sector dignitaries at Nevada 2.0 that the state’s two-year colleges are the solution to Nevada’s joblessness woes.

“[Community colleges] are really going to educate the new middle class in your state,” Jones said. “They’re going to be the backbone of the growth and the future of this state.”

He said the challenge for legislators, education officials and business leaders is to prepare Nevadans to support the jobs its highest-educated citizens will create.

“The quest is not to have a few high-paying jobs in a few high-tech industries,” he said. “The quest is to produce great jobs for a lot of people.”
Jones explained that building an educated workforce is a matter of tackling systemic problems in traditional higher education — things that plague college statistics nationwide.

Given 100 average high school students, Jones said 48 will graduate from high school. Twenty-six of the remainder will start college and 18 of those will return in their sophomore year.

But only four will graduate with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in 6 years or fewer.

“Do we think they’re going to hire college dropouts for these jobs in biotech and high tech?” he asked the audience. “Don’t think so.”

Jones asserted that the United States has failed to keep pace in higher education with changes in college attendance demographics.

“This might be the first generation in history where the children are not as well educated as the parents,” he said, “and that would be a remarkable setback for the United States.”

The biggest reason for this decline he said, is the rising number of Hispanics attending college — a group that comprises a large part of what he called the “new majority” in higher education.

This new majority — first-generation college attendees who do not come from good high schools or from strong academic backgrounds, whose parents are often ill-equipped to help them advocate for what they need in college — contribute to high college dropout rates because colleges are not adapting fast enough, Jones said.

But, he said, the problem can be solved.

First, Jones spoke against remediation at the college level.

“Remediation is wholly ineffective,” he said, citing a study of 5,000 Virginia college students in which one-third of those recommended for remedial courses did not show up for their first day of those classes.

Jones said that the students who skipped recommended remediation did just as well as those who took the courses they were directed to. He also said another study showed that the longer a student stays in remedial courses, the worse he or she will do in school.

He called remediation the “Bermuda Triangle of higher education,” assuring the audience that there is a better way to boost college success rates.
Jones advocated for new ways of thinking about time, choice and structure at the community college level.

“More time actually hurts [students’] chances to graduate,” he said.

He explained that for a given freshman class, 56 percent of college students will have graduated in six years, but only 58 percent will have graduated in eight.

“If you’re still there after six years, you might be living the dream but you’re not achieving the dream,” he said. “You’re more likely to drop out than you are to graduate.”

Time away from school also hurts students’ chances of graduating.

Of students who enroll in college immediately after completing high school, 50 percent graduate, but only 25 percent of those who go to college after a year off and just 10 percent of those who begin college after age 25.

Choice has a similar effect, Jones said.

“As Americans, we love choice,” he said. “[But] having lots of choices for college students is not good.”

Jones offered examples of surveys that showed greater success in sales and greater confidence among doctors in prescribing medicines when fewer choices were available. He implied that students with fewer elective choices are more successful than those with more freedom to set their class schedules, but he did not quantify “success” or cite research showing that the rule suggested by the general studies applies to education as well.

Still, Jones asserted that students are better off with prescriptive core curricula than with flexible degree requirements.

Structure, Jones’ final suggestion for improving graduation statistics and ultimately turning out a better-educated workforce, allegedly worked for the Tennessee public higher education system, where a class of junior colleges that run 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. block schedules and take regular attendance. Those schools graduate about 75 percent of their students, compared to a 14 percent graduation rate for other Tennessee community colleges that do not use such a structured system.

Jones did say that the more structured schools also had more full-time faculty than their traditional counterparts and tended to contextualize core learning more, but he insisted that more structure would yield better graduation statistics.

Jones assured the audience that attention to the way students get from college enrollment to degree receipt is crucial to producing more college graduates.

And that, he said, is the basis of the best kind of future workforce.

Nevada is one of the eight states participating in Complete College America’s charter program, which deploys the organization’s resources and expertise to help boost education through partnerships between high schools and colleges.

Jones said Nevada is on the right track toward creating a strong economy based on education.

“I’m convinced that what you get done here will not only serve you well,” he said, “but will be a beacon for the rest of this country.”

Contact Haley Etchison at news@unlvrebelyell.com.

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