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Nevada suffering a higher-education brain drain

To Nevada’s unhappy distinction as the state with the nation’s highest unemployment and foreclosure rates, add this: The proportion of its population with college degrees — already one of the lowest in the country — is falling the fastest.

At a time when it’s a national priority to increase the number of degree-holders, Nevada’s high jobless rate has sent its best-educated residents off to find work in other states, while huge tuition and fee increases have caused university enrollment to plummet. And the high concentration of workers in industries such as construction, who don’t have degrees but also can’t find jobs elsewhere, has pulled the average lower.

“Nationwide, the recovery in the job market has favored those with more education over those with less,” said Stephen Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. So while people with college degrees are leaving, “The less educated haven’t been able to move to find work.”

Related story: Biggest US jump in college graduates? This state has it

Nevada has also been slow to produce new graduates. State budget cuts have propelled a 160 percent tuition increase over 10 years at public campuses such as UNLV, even as hundreds of courses have been dropped, programs eliminated and salaries cut for faculty and staff. In the academic year that just ended, there were 10,000 fewer students enrolled in Nevada’s public universities than in the year before, an 8.2 percent drop.

Having become the best case study for why going to college is important, Nevada is trying to reverse this slide by reinventing the way it funds higher education.

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“This depression has very cruelly brought the message home to us: We need to change our basic economy, and in order to diversify and develop our economy, we require a more skilled workforce and more educated citizenry,” said Dan Klaich, chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education. “That’s just the beginning and the end of it — and if we don’t do that, this economy will continue to stagnate.”

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Nevada officials plan to fund public higher education based not on enrollment, as has been the case historically, but on such things as how many students actually graduate.

“Like everybody else in the country,” Klaich said, “we’ve realized that access without reasonable pathways to successful completion is a false promise.”

This story, "In Nevada, a higher-education brain drain," was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. 

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