Sun editorial:

Forget the empty praises, lawmakers should reward UNLV for its diversity

With UNLV once again finishing atop U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of the most diverse universities in the nation, here’s an ultimatum for Nevada lawmakers.

Either start giving the university the resources it deserves to continue serving minority students, or admit you’re discriminating against UNLV.

The rankings are at once a cause for celebration and a reminder of an infuriating reality in Nevada’s higher education system. That reality is the discrepancy between state funding for UNLV and UNR.

UNR has long received far more funding than UNLV, which is patently unfair considering the makeup of the student bodies at both schools.

Compared with UNR’s student population, UNLV’s is more ethnically diverse and features a greater percentage of students who are the first generation in their family to attend college. UNLV students also come from less significantly wealthy families on average, with a median household of $78,000 compared with $103,000 for UNR.

UNLV has been striving in recent years to help first-generation and minority students navigate their way to a degree, hiring a chief diversity officer and creating an on-campus assistance center specifically for those students, among other initiatives.

Efforts like those cost money, which is one reason the funding gap needs to go away. And while it should be said that lawmakers have made progress on that front in recent years by balancing out base funding, UNR still receives an extra share for operating what are termed as statewide services, such as lab animal medicine and basic research chemistry. Meanwhile, UNLV is expected to serve its unique population of students with the same amount of funding as UNR.

Not fair. And not good for Nevada, either because the entire state benefits from an investment in UNLV. The reason is simple: It will help guarantee we will have a workforce that will attract high-quality businesses and employers. It also will create a larger pool of innovators, many of which will stay in the state and help propel our growth.

Nevada Chancellor Thom Reilly responded to the U.S. News & World Report diversity rankings by saying the distinction puts pressure on UNLV to reduce the achievement gap between white and minority students. Simply boosting enrollment of minority students without improving student success, he said, doesn’t create greater opportunities for those students.

Reilly’s concerns about graduation rates are legitimate, but they underscore the need for UNLV to receive more resources.

All educators know that special challenges come with serving communities where higher education isn’t the familial norm. Students whose parents did not go to college need more institutional support for navigating the world of higher education, which can be overwhelming to them. For students from lower-income families, financial pressures can also prompt them to give up on a degree in favor of going into the workforce.

During a recent interview with the Sun, Reilly said he had pressed the state’s universities and colleges to develop a list of best practices in place at their peer institutions for improving graduation rates, particularly among first-generation and minority students. Once those best practices are in hand, he said, Nevada’s schools can go to the Legislature and request the funding needed to tailor them on their campuses.

Asked specifically about the UNLV-UNR funding discrepancy, Reilly said officials “need to build that case” to lawmakers but needed to do it with evidence. “I feel we haven’t come with details,” he said.

But for UNLV, one part of the solution has already been determined. The university needs its state funding to at least be on par with UNR’s.

The current funding formula doesn’t adequately compensate for the needs of UNLV’s students compared to those of UNR’s student body. It also unfairly penalizes UNLV by basing funding partly on completion rates, an approach that doesn’t recognize that UNLV is being fed by a struggling K-12 system and is in a community with an abundance of well-paying jobs that can lure students into dropping out.

Beyond that, the formula fails to reward UNLV for the role it’s already playing in providing upward mobility for its students. UNLV significantly outperforms UNR in this respect, as shown in a 2017 study by the Brookings Institution that compared the median family income of students from each school and the median income for graduates at age 34. UNLV students made greater strides proportionally, and yet the funding gap persists.

So UNLV’s diversity needs to be embraced, supported and treated as one of Nevada’s most valuable assets. As the U.S. increasingly becomes more ethnically diverse, our university is leading the way in creating and nurturing a multicultural campus environment.

With the 2019 legislative session right around the corner, it’s past time for Nevada lawmakers to give UNLV the resources it deserves — and put it at least on even ground with UNR.