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Nevada State College survives a decade and celebrates with hope for the future

<p>Nevada State College. PHOTO: K.M. CANNON</p>

Nevada State College. PHOTO: K.M. CANNON

<p>NSC President Bart Patterson</p>

NSC President Bart Patterson

There is no ivory tower on the campus of Nevada State College. But if the school did decide to build one, it would have to figure out where.

Do you build it near the administrative offices and classrooms in downtown Henderson? Or near the Liberal Arts and Sciences Building five miles away?

There’s a big difference between the campus as it exists and the campus that is envisioned. The first one is split by five miles of scattered development — with two buildings on South Water Street and two more on the scrubby hills between Henderson and Boulder City. The second exists entirely on the acreage near the foothills south of town.

Right now, Nevada State College has exactly one building and 509 acres to call its own. They rent space in three other buildings, including a converted vitamin warehouse owned by the city of Henderson.

The college opened its only proper building in 2008. The sleek Liberal Arts and Sciences Building has a computer lab, two biology labs, two chemistry labs and several classrooms — all outfitted with the best equipment money can buy. It is the jewel in the Nevada State crown. If you can count one building and a whole lot of desert as a crown.

College leaders initially planned to build a 100,000 square-foot building here, but when everything was said and done, they ended up with about 43,000 square feet of stained concrete and instructional space. But that’s OK, because by then, Nevada State had gotten awfully good at stretching its resources.

“We’ve always had to struggle,” said President Bart Patterson. “Our funding is among the lowest in the state, so we have the mentality of getting by with a little.”

Andy Kuniyuki, associate dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, sounds like the proud parent of this humble teaching space. He knows the specs of each and every flow cytometer, fume hood and electrophoresis station. And he proudly shows off the school’s 16-inch telescope, which is stored under the stairs like an old tennis racket.

“The next building will be three stories and have an observatory on top,” Kuniyuki said.

Talking about the future reminds Kuniyuki of the past, when Nevada State College fit inside the vitamin warehouse and Kuniyuki shared an office with four other people.

The Liberal Arts and Sciences Building is not just an accomplishment, it’s the college’s one and only claim on the future, a monument to permanence and stability. And that’s something Nevada State College has had to work very hard to achieve. From the very beginning, before it had students or faculty, the college has been under fire, dismissed as a waste of money and resources that would be better spent at UNLV or CSN. In 2008 and 2011, lawmakers even suggested closing the campus altogether. Geoff Schumacher, the former publisher of CityLife, suggested the same thing in a February 2010 column in the Review-Journal.

“On the cutting side, the university Board of Regents have to take a hard look at whether they can justify keeping Nevada State College open,” he wrote. “The state’s youngest institution of higher education is also its least vital. Its very conception was suspect and its contribution to the state system is negligible.”

Negligible? Ouch! But Nevada State is used to that kind of criticism. The college was conceived as the middle tier between research universities like UNLV and community colleges like CSN, a kind of occupational college to supply much-needed teachers and nurses. Unlike CSN, which provides two-year associates degrees, and UNLV, which awards bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees, Nevada State College doesn’t seem to have an obvious niche. It offers bachelors degrees in education, psychology, nursing, criminal justice, business and science. So does UNLV.

But unlike UNLV, Nevada State College is growing. Its student body has grown by 45 percent in the last five years. Its popularity obviously doesn’t come from specific degree programs. It comes from the college’s role educating under-served students who might not be able to get into — or afford — a traditional university.

“A lot of the students we serve are the first in their families to go to college,” said Spencer Stewart, associate vice president of college relations. “About 50 percent of our students are traditionally aged. The other 50 percent are 30, 40 or 50 years old. They are people who are coming back to finish a degree after taking a long time off.”

Almost 50 percent of the students at Nevada State College are minorities. The school is trying to get federal designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution, which would unlock additional funding and could make it the first officially recognized minority-serving college in the state, unless CSN gets there first. Nevada State College serves students who don’t have the grades to get in to UNLV or UNR, which require a 3.0 GPA. The college only requires a C average and no SAT or ACT tests.

“You can’t assume that a student population is just transferable from one campus to another,” Patterson said.

But when budgets get tight, it gets harder to justify the existence of the small school at the edge of the valley if it isn’t producing degrees that can’t be had at UNLV or CSN. Higher Ed Chancellor Dan Klaich mentioned closing the campus in 2010. However, Nevada State College is beginning to live up to its promise to educate students at a lower cost than UNLV.

“Nevada State College’s place is secure,” Klaich said. “The future for the college is very bright.”

Since the college has grown, it has started to produce savings for the state, since it costs $1,000 less per year to educate a student at the state college versus the university.

“If our students were to go to UNLV, it would cost the state more,” Patterson said. “The whole idea behind Nevada State College is actually working very well.”

Eventually, Nevada State College would like to attract more education, nursing and business undergraduates, which would allow the Nevada System of Higher Education to direct more resources to expensive research and graduate programs. The state funding per student at UNLV is $6,000. At Nevada State College, it’s $5,000. The discount comes from requiring professors to teach more classes per semester, and by making classes larger.

The college doesn’t have dormitories, dining halls or a student union. The Liberal Arts and Sciences building does have a ping-pong table wedged among the telescopes and cytometers.

“Our students come, and they come despite the fact that we have no student center and our buildings are separated by five miles,” Patterson said. “But the campus keeps growing.”

The Legislature is studying the funding formula for higher education. Proposals could shift funding from schools in Northern Nevada to Southern Nevada. The discussions have encouraged Patterson, because it could mean an end to the budget cuts, and, eventually, a windfall of about $3 million.

So Nevada State is beginning to feel better about its future. Plans for two new buildings are on the drawing board. Eventually the school may be able to move out of the rented space in downtown Henderson and concentrate operations on campus. The state isn’t going to provide any of the money for construction, so the college is exploring public-private partnerships. The college is growing out of its current digs, and would like to have a more traditional campus. And there’s another reason to construct the new buildings.

“It’s about permanence,” Patterson said. “It’s a physical demonstration that we are here to stay.”

The Liberal Arts and Sciences Building was constructed with this in mind. Windows on the second floor provide a view of Nevada State’s past and future. On one side, the windows look out on the Dawson Building. The converted vitamin warehouse houses the library and some offices. It used to house the entire college, all of its faculty and a tiny student body of fewer than 200. The other window looks out on empty land. Someday, Patterson hopes, that land will be covered by campus buildings and private businesses in research and development.

Before it celebrates a ground-breaking, the college will celebrate how far it’s come. The first graduating class in 2004 had 13 students. They let those pioneers help design the first diplomas and create an alma mater and held the ceremony at a conference room at Lake Las Vegas. Last year, the college graduated about 300 students at the Henderson Pavillion. In a couple of years, they’ll outgrow that venue, Stewart said.

“The great thing about Nevada State College is that the small school culture has survived,” he said.

To celebrate, Nevada State College will hold the first-ever Spirit Week. Students are participating in a contest to name the school mascot, a scorpion. The 10th anniversary celebrations end with a gala at Green Valley Ranch, where school officials will unveil a master plan for the campus.

Ultimately, they would like to see dorms at Nevada State. And a dining hall and student union. Oh yeah, they’re thinking about adding an athletic program, too. It probably wouldn’t be Division 1, at least not at first. But wherever they compete, one thing is guaranteed. Nevada State will be the underdog. It’s the only thing they know how to be.