Online and Outsourced

Recommendation to create Nevada Virtual College, 2-year college to be run by outside vendor, provokes backlash from faculty members and some administrators.
September 19, 2011

Nevada should create an online community college and outsource its operation to a vendor, such as a for-profit or Western Governors University, according to a new report from a task force convened by the Nevada System of Higher Education’s chancellor, Daniel Klaich.

Faculty groups from the state’s four community colleges are upset about the proposal for Nevada Virtual College, which was presented last week to the system’s Board of Regents. They say the new college isn’t needed, and that it would shortchange students and result in faculty layoffs. Several administrators have also publicly stepped away from the proposal.

“I am opposed to the creation of a Nevada Virtual College as a separate, degree-granting institution,” Michael D. Richards, president of the College of Southern Nevada, wrote on his blog, noting that his institution already offers 300 courses online with a wide scope of faculty oversight and technology support. “A new institution and process is not needed.”

The task force’s report is reminiscent of politically charged arguments over public college efficiency in Texas and Florida. It recommends a range of changes to the state's community colleges, including better collaboration with high schools, a focus on measurable student outcomes, outsourcing of remedial education and the creation of variable tuition rates. The overall theme of expanding student access to two-year degrees is one many faculty members and community college leaders support. But a privatized online college? Not so much.

The proposed college is an idea that should "never get off the starting block," says Sondra Cosgrove, a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada, who chairs the college’s chapter of the Nevada Faculty Alliance.

And while an outsourced Nevada Virtual College is far from becoming a reality, some faculty members worry that state lawmakers will run with the proposal, regardless of whether Klaich and the regents get behind it.

The report says Nevada's community colleges, unlike Western Governors and leading for-profits, “have been slow to embrace technology coupled with a focus on competency based outcomes.”

As a separate entity, the proposed Nevada Virtual College could better price courses, according to the report. In addition, "the vendor would be paid as students successfully complete each course, with bonuses paid for timely degree completion.”

Fred Lokken introduced the online college concept to the task force. But Lokken, the associate dean for teaching technologies at Truckee Meadows Community College, says the report’s recommendation is “nowhere close” to what he suggested.

Lokken, who is also dean of Truckee's WebCollege, says he proposed ideas for sharing online resources among the system’s community colleges, to eliminate redundancy and increase the number of online degree programs. His concept did not include the outsourcing of curriculum, however. And Lokken and others say Nevada's community colleges are ahead of the curve in online education. Truckee Meadows, for example, offers seven fully-online degree programs and enrolls 5,400 students in online classes.

Lokken says the task force’s proposal is “ludicrous and without merit."

A 'Fresh Look'

Political battles over higher education have a tendency to get heated in Nevada. The recession walloped the state, which has the highest unemployment rate in the nation and one of the lowest high school graduation rates. State contributions to Nevada’s public higher education system have been slashed by 20 percent over three years, even as booming population has led to substantial enrollment increases.

Jim Rogers, Klaich's predecessor, who stepped down two years ago, didn’t pull his punches and had many public confrontations with the state’s leaders over budget cuts. Klaich has tried a gentler approach, part of which was the creation last year of the “Fresh Look at Nevada’s Community Colleges" task force.

The task force’s charge came from widespread agreement that Nevada needs to become more intentional about matching higher education with its evolving job market, which has traditionally centered on tourism and the gaming industry.

"We need to broaden the pipeline," Klaich says.

He appointed 14 people with business, higher education and government backgrounds to the task force, and picked Bruce R. James as its chairman. James, the CEO of a Nevada-based technology company, has been a powerful critic of government waste, and served as chairman of the Nevada Spending and Government Efficiency (SAGE) Commission.

James is a polarizing figure to some in higher education. But many aspects of the task force report were well-received, even by critics of the Nevada Virtual College proposal.

Klaich says he and the board accepted the report, which he calls positive and proactive, but that many discussions loom about how to follow through on its recommendations, including the Nevada Virtual College.

"That's something we've got to look at very carefully," he says.

Of the report's findings, Cosgrove says “75 percent of that we could work with.” But the Nevada Virtual College is a different matter, she says, and the report comes as faculty at the system’s community colleges are smarting over a 4.8 percent salary reduction.

“People had already been kicked and slapped around, and then they’re told their jobs are being outsourced,” Cosgrove says. “That didn’t go over well.”

Cosgrove says students would also lose at an online community college, arguing that many of the lesser-prepared students her college serves need attention an online-only institution cannot provide.

Stephen G. Katsinas agrees. Katsinas, director of the University of Alabama's education policy center, says online courses can supplement a curriculum for students who have remedial needs, but shouldn't replace all classroom learning.

"Does online really work for developmental education?" he asks. "I think the answer is no."

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