Las Vegas native Beatriz Alcala grew up in an immigrant family defined by the hard work of her parents. They left Mexico’s Zacatecas state, found a new life in Southern Nevada and work in its service sector. Her late father, Juan Ignacio Alcala, was a cook on the Las Vegas Strip. Her mother, Eva, is at last nearing retirement from her work in housekeeping. Neither had much formal education, but they instilled its importance in their children.
“They were barely surviving, living paycheck to paycheck, but they always wanted me to do my best in school,” Alcala recalls. As she finished high school, she went to a college fair. “But there was no money for college.”
So, like many thousands of UNLV students of economically humble means, Alcala scraped together grant funding and got a big boost from the state’s Governor Guinn Millennium Scholarship. She saved money by living at home, bringing her lunch, and parking in the free lot. She applied the work ethic instilled by her parents and earned a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and then a doctorate in physical therapy.
She says she likely wouldn’t have gone on for that doctorate if it had meant leaving Las Vegas. Now she is a physical therapist in the neonatal intensive care unit at Spring Valley Hospital and one of the many UNLV graduates filling the high demand for high-skilled professionals in health care.
UNLV adds about 5,000 graduates to the workforce each year. And, according the Center for Business and Economic Research, alumni now account for a fifth of all bachelor-and-above degree-holders in Clark County.
Alcala’s story of upward social and economic mobility is increasingly common at UNLV, one of the country’s most ethnically diverse campuses. More than 80% of students come from Nevada and about half will be the first in their families to earn a degree.
A Place that Matters
When it comes to, “delivering economic value to their students,” UNLV rises above many better-known institutions of higher learning, according to the national policy organization Third Way. Its Economic Mobility Index places UNLV in the top tier based off the earnings boost they get from their degree. It also factors in the proportion of low- and middle-income students an institutions moves up the ladder.
Distilling the statistics, an important truth about the value of higher education emerges. As Brookings Institution Senior Fellow in Economic Studies Richard Reeves writes, the “desire to secure and sustain a middle-class standard of living is virtually universal. But the opportunity to do so is not.”
“Place matters,” Reeves goes on in his insightful study, Making a Middle Class: Colleges and Cities in the Mountain West. “In some cities, the middle class is thriving, and low-income children are rising up to join its ranks. In others, the middle class is sliding (even shrinking, on some measures), and upward mobility rates are low. Education is key, providing, at its best, a strong boost to the chances for individuals to move up the economic ladder, as well as the skills required for flourishing local labor markets.”
Watching demographically diverse UNLV meet the needs of students who reflect the community at large is a point of pride for President Keith E. Whitfield. As the national conversation around high student loan debt continues, those who measure the real-world impact of a university education on society are increasingly focused on the upward mobility metric.
But “that’s not done by accident,” Whitfield says. “That’s accomplished by significantly increasing graduation rates. They’re not where we want them … We want to get students across the finish line. We want them to get a degree. We want them getting out there and getting a career.”
Student achievement is one pillar of UNLV’s Top Tier 2.0 strategic plan and it’s aimed squarely at retaining and graduating students and reducing barriers to access. In 2022, the plan was further updated to emphasize the university’s role in fostering a supportive and inclusive environment on campus while driving socio-economic development in Southern Nevada.
David Damore, interim executive director of both Brookings Mountain West and The Lincy Institute at UNLV, says that is a recruitment draw. “When we’re interviewing for a faculty job, they get it right away. Everybody seems to understand the mission here.” But, he adds, pointing to UNLV’s status as a research university, “What we’re trying to do is really, really difficult: Be an R1 institution on an R2 budget while serving a population of students who have no reference point on what it means to go to college.”
To that end, early outreach programs are putting local students on the college path beginning in elementary school and providing advice to families as they near transition to college. UNLV has staffed up its academic advising offices and overhauled financial aid to address some of the frustration students faced in the past. In January, Whitfield announced a new financial literacy program to help students plan now and manage their money for future wealth growth. A college education, he notes, is one factor in building generational wealth.
And this fall the university is launching Rebel Ready Week, an intensive, weeklong onboarding program to boost student confidence and connect them to resources before classes even begin.
Add an expanding and evolving curriculum to address workforce needs, improved communications with Clark County School District, and an emphasis on hiring energetic faculty members inspired by UNLV’s vision, and you have a healthy educational ecosystem for making headway on that strategic plan.
At UNLV, it all begins with acknowledging and celebrating the ethnic diversity of its 31,000 students, says Caitlin Saladino, director of strategic development for both Brookings Mountain West and The Lincy Institute. The university has ranked either first or second in diversity for a public institution for the past six years.
“It’s not just that we’re diverse; it’s the diversity of our diversity. It’s the percentage share of Black and Latino and Asian students all living together and working together in this metro. And if we’re the only university in this metro, it logically follows that the student population of this university is going to reflect the 2.2 million people that live here.”
But logic hasn’t always applied when it comes to college rankings, which tend to tilt toward vaunted institutions known for their brick, ivy, and enormous legacy endowments.
Emphasizing Outcomes Over Selectivity
Damore, who also chairs UNLV’s political science department, sees the Third Way index not only as important for the university, but also as a breakthrough in the fuzzy pseudoscience behind popular college ranking guides.
For an idea of how contentious rankings have become, look at a Feb. 1 editorial in the Los Angeles Times, which takes after the U.S. News & World Report’s flawed analytics. From the editorial: “For too long, colleges and universities have played along with the rankings process that is based on flawed methodology and prizes wealth and reputation over educational quality, even though many education leaders have criticized the fairness and validity of the rankings. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona last year called the ranking system a ‘joke’ because it encourages schools to game the system.”
That’s part of what makes the Third Way metric illuminating: Unlike some others measurements, it acknowledges changing times and the challenges that commonly face students. Its focus is on outcomes, rather than selectivity. And rather than a misleading rank-order, it places universities in tiers.
“We don’t have the 250-year-old universities of the northeast and East Coast,” says William Brown, director of Brookings Mountain West. “We’ve got these supposedly young, successful, agile, rather nimble universities that are catering to the people where they are. I think an index like that, which takes into account how many PELL [grant] students you have and how many students are improving their income 5 and 10 years out of school — for UNLV to rank in that [top tier], I found that staggering.
“I can’t believe UNLV isn’t screaming that from the rooftops.”
As a matter of fact, Whitfield is doing just that.
‘The Economic Piece’
Far beyond the bragging rights, the Third Way ranking helps provide a reminder of the importance of UNLV to a maturing Las Vegas. With 62% of its graduates remaining in Nevada, the university plays a key role in providing working professionals for the next generation of jobs.
Whitfield calls it “the economic piece.”
And UNLV’s diversity is appealing to future employers as the U.S. population, by 2060, is predicted to become as diverse as Las Vegas’ is now. “If you provide an environment that has a diverse set of voices and a diverse set of thoughts, you’re going to produce a better student. You’re going to produce a better graduate, who is able to innovate and lead in an increasingly diverse world,” Whitfield says. “Here on our campus, here under the umbrella of UNLV, we think our diversity is one of our strengths.”
As a member of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, Whitfield says, “I’m one of the voices that keeps making sure that as we sell Nevada, and particularly Southern Nevada, as a place for new economic growth and development, that you’ve got this incredible research university that’s here. I think we’re proving that in spades with our research park.”
UNLV’s Harry Reid Research and Technology Park is a tech incubator that purposefully mixes startups and Fortune 500 companies alike. It is home to the Nevada Small Business Development Center, the student-run Rebel Venture Fund, and other programs aimed at leveraging university knowledge for economic diversification.
The economic impact of a university, especially one that fosters upwardly mobile graduates, is substantial. On average, college graduates earn $1.2 million more than high school graduates over their lifetime, according to an Association of Public & Land Grant Universities analysis of more than 30 million students.
As measured by UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research in 2021, the university has long been a major, if underrated, contributor to the community. UNLV’s nearly 4,100 employees generate a $666 million annual payroll and support another 7,100 jobs. It also spends nearly $1 billion locally on goods and services with students themselves adding another $322 million. Its total economic impact: $1.585 billion in 2021.
And the plan to grow the university’s research capacity to meet changing technology, Whitfield says, holds the potential to expand that economic impact by billions and make it an even more attractive partner for companies that increasingly see glittering Las Vegas in a new light.
Whitfield, an experienced administrator and prolific scholar who is also the first African American president in UNLV history, speaks enthusiastically about the vitality on campus. Part of that energy is attributable to what every person interviewed for this story agreed was the academic “hunger” of the students, especially those balancing jobs and breaking new ground in their families. It might take them more than four years to graduate, they say, but their tenacity is palpable and inspiring.
Whitfield recalls one student who held down two jobs while taking 18 semester credits. He not only succeeded in the classroom, but after graduation with a computer science degree landed a job with Google. “They bring a certain amount of grit,” Whitfield says. “They know how to work. If they can figure out how to navigate the system, ask the right questions, and stay engaged, it’s life-changing.”
Of course, no one has to tell that to Beatriz Alcala, the groundbreaking daughter of Mexican immigrants.
“My parents’ goal was for me was to not have to live paycheck-to-paycheck and to not have this physical job and to be able to do something more than what they were able to achieve,” she says. “They wanted me to have other opportunities.
“I love what I do. I love my profession. Getting my bachelors and then getting my doctorate, the programs helped me to succeed, get a foundation in the different studies I practice in, and make a difference in people’s lives. And not only in my patients’ lives, but also my family.”
With a cousin and nephew now considering physical therapy as careers, Alcala says, “It’s nice to know that I’ve kind of started that in my own family.”