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The Issues: Why Higher Education Funding is Key to a 21st Century Workforce

Innovative funding programs, policies to promote post-secondary education will help Nevada keep pace.

Business and Community  |  Mar 15, 2017  |  By Kelsey Hand
Scene at a job fair

Students met with recruiters from more than 150 companies, including Boyd Gaming, during UNLV Career Services' spring job fair on March 1, 2017. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

Our nation’s rapidly evolving, technologically oriented economy is driving a surge in demand for skilled employees. It is estimated that two-thirds of all jobs created in the coming decade will require some form of postsecondary education. In response, the United States has established a goal of achieving a 60 percent postsecondary degree or certificate attainment among the nation’s labor force by 2025, equating to an additional 62 million Americans. But with the current trajectory, the U.S. will produce only 39 million such graduates, 23 million short of the goal.

At the same time, funding constraints and other factors have resulted in a 20 percent decrease in total state appropriations to public baccalaureate-granting institutions. Our experts report that innovative approaches to funding postsecondary education are required to meet America’s demand for skilled workers.

The experts

  • Kim Nehls, visiting assistant professor in the College of Education’s educational psychology and higher education department. She is also executive director of the national Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), which is housed at UNLV.
  • Holly Schneider, ASHE conference coordinator
  • Oscar Espinoza-Parra, ASHE finance and communication coordinator
  • Elena Nourrie, ASHE graduate student

A few facts

  • Nevada ranked 45th in the nation for per-capita higher education support in fiscal year 2014.
  • Between 2010 and 2015, per-student higher education appropriations in Nevada decreased by 34.5 percent. In response, tuition and fees at all public higher education institutions increased between 36 and 46 percent during that span.
  • 23 percent of Nevada families earn $30,000 or less annually; Attending a four-year Nevada university would require them to invest more than 60 percent of their total earnings.
  • Studies by the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce and the Institute for Research in Higher Education predict that by 2020, 62 percent of jobs nationally will require postsecondary credentials.

These experts authored a policy paper, "Higher Education Funding in Nevada," that appears in the College of Education’s newest volume of policy reports presented to Nevada lawmakers during the 2017 legislative session. 

Why this matters

What happens if higher education funding maintains status quo?

With Nevada’s population reported at nearly 3 million, and projected to increase to 3.5 million by 2020, continued growth will only exacerbate the stresses on an already ill-equipped funding system unless mitigating actions are taken. Low rates of postsecondary education will inhibit Nevada’s ability to diversify economically and participate in the 21st century economy. Even with its favorable tax climate, poor educational rankings will reduce Nevada’s ability to attract business investment, especially from technologically oriented companies.

What steps should we consider to ensure our state produces skilled employees to diversify and strengthen our state’s workforce?

Understanding there will always be more issues to address than funding available, experts suggest analyzing all state expenditures to identify opportunities and uncover funds. Bringing Nevada’s postsecondary education funding up to the national average may alleviate this issue.

In addition, their research suggests points to policies that help ensure that students and their families can afford to complete a postsecondary degree. Such policies include holding tuition rates constant for a full four years or establishing incremental increases that allow families to make a plan over multiple years.

Are there other societal benefits to a higher-educated workforce?

Absolutely, the experts agreed. “Multiple studies have shown that higher education is linked to improved health, reduced infant mortality, lower public assistance use and higher voter participation, to name a few,” Nehls said.

Additionally, national average labor earnings of young adults with a baccalaureate degree are 60 percent higher than for high school graduates—leading to greater tax contributions to the state of Nevada and increased spending power to bolster our local economies. “It’s a win-win for the individuals and for our state as a whole,” Nehls said.