It’s time state leaders notice how much UNLV does with so little

The battle to protect UNLV from its detractors in state leadership just got an infusion of ammunition.

It comes courtesy of a study by the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves, which reveals that the American dream is alive and well in Las Vegas thanks in no small part to UNLV.

In the study, Reeves used a database of anonymized tax records to examine income trends throughout the nation but focusing especially on Las Vegas and three other Western cities. Based on his research, Reeves concluded that upward mobility is greater in Western cities than elsewhere, particularly those in the Southeast and the Rust Belt, and Las Vegas compares well regionally.

That’s partly because of UNLV, as Reeves shows. Comparing the university to eight other Mountain West colleges, he describes it as one of the region’s leading “escalators” in providing advancement opportunities to students from low-income and middle-income families.

In a key data point, Reeves compares the median parental income of UNLV and UNR students with the median income of the universities’ graduates at age 34. Here’s what he found:

• UNLV: $90,400 median parental income, $41,500 median income at 34.

• UNR: $103,500 median parental income, $45,900 median income at 34.

The takeaway: As compared with their parents, UNLV students move up the socioeconomic ladder at least as far and as fast as UNR students — slightly better, even.

And that’s where UNLV’s management by state officials gets especially disturbing. Northern Nevada lawmakers, the Nevada Board of Regents and the Nevada System of Higher Education have established a pattern of treating UNLV with second-class status compared with UNR, which is evident in a number of key respects. Those include the fact that per-student state funding for UNR and UNLV is grossly unequal, and higher education officials have nurtured continuity in leadership at UNR while continually disrupting UNLV. In the past 12 years, four UNLV presidents have been forced out while not one has endured the same fate at UNR.

Underlying it all is a proven tendency to treat problems at UNLV like catastrophes while ignoring or shrugging off missteps at UNR. Witness former UNLV President Len Jessup being hounded over a situation at UNLV’s School of Dental Medicine while the disclosure of an audit that raised serious questions about UNR’s School of Medicine drew practically no public response by NSHE or the regents. UNR President Marc Johnson not only escaped any criticism over the issue, he was recently described as a “wonderful president” by Reilly.

Something needs to give, and Reeves’ study helps show why. UNLV isn’t perfect — no institution is — but UNLV is outperforming UNR in several key respects, including offering greater opportunities for advancement and serving the community’s vibrantly diverse population. Not only is UNLV tied with two other institutions as the most ethnically diverse campus in the nation, but Reeves concluded from his data that “Las Vegas is perhaps the quintessential ‘melting pot’ metro in terms of diversity.”

(Here, it should be noted that the report was published by Brookings Mountain West, which is based at UNLV. But Reeves’ credentials as an independent academic researcher are beyond reproach — graduate of Oxford University, lecturer at Georgetown University, former deputy prime minister in the U.K. government, author of several books, etc.)

But UNLV also faces challenges that aren’t felt as deeply in Reno, as Reeves shows. Those include relatively low achievement among CCSD graduates who enroll at UNLV, the availability of good-paying jobs in Las Vegas, and the percentage of students here from single-parent families, who often struggle academically.

In defending the handling of Jessup, Reilly has repeatedly cited UNLV’s dropout rate, a serious concern. That’s fine — raising graduation rates is a noble objective — but any criticism of UNLV on that front needs to be tempered with the challenges the university faces. It’s one thing to educate upper-middle-class students from two-parent families and above-average K-12 systems; it’s another to do so in a community as economically and socially complex as Las Vegas.

With the regents holding a two-day meeting this week in Northern Nevada, they should read Reeves’ report before dumping any more dirt on UNLV.

Reeves points out in his study that the U.S. is shrinking in terms of being the land of opportunity, with income mobility taking a beating from such factors as wage stagnation, the loss of traditional manufacturing jobs and a presidential administration that seems bent on pulling up the socioeconomic ladder.

If the American dream is going to remain an achievable prospect and not a bygone ideal, it needs to stay vibrant in places like Las Vegas. And for that to occur, it’s crucial for state leaders to support UNLV.