Regents hike student fees 5 percent to fund 11 percent faculty pay raise

2 December 2023

The Board of Regents in charge of Nevada’s public higher education system voted unanimously on Friday to approve a historically large 11 percent cost-of-living raise for faculty in 2025, a move many faculty have lauded as long overdue. 

But that raise will be funded in part by an additional 5 percent hike in student registration fees, the largest one-year increase since 2012. That increase would add on to existing planned increases of 1.8 percent in fall 2024 and 2.7 percent in fall 2025. 

“Frankly, this is a very difficult decision,” UNLV Graduate Student Association President Nicole Thomas told the board. “It’s unfortunate that it comes down to something that almost feels like our faculty and students are being pitted against each other.”

The move comes after lawmakers approved the pay raise but funded only about two-thirds of the expected cost of the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) with state dollars earlier this year — in line with other state agencies that receive large amounts of non-state dollars (such as the Department of Health and Human Services), but well below the funding level higher education leaders had lobbied for. 

Friday’s vote also functionally suspends a 1 percent merit pay program through the 2025 fiscal year for university faculty and staff as another cost-saving measure. It also required regents to waive an existing 6 percent annual cap on student fee increases tied to the system’s “predictable pricing plan.”

On average, student fees increased roughly 2.7 percent per year between 2021 and 2023, NSHE data show. Over the last 10 years, fees have increased by more than 3 percent only twice (in 2019 and 2020), and did not increase at all between 2013 and 2017. 

The increase approved Friday raised the $267.50 cost per credit for a university undergraduate to $281 per credit. For lower-division community college students, it raised from $117.75 per credit to $123.75.

Some regents had signaled a reluctance at past meetings to increase student fees. Those regents appeared to soften their positions Friday after hearing from numerous students, faculty and institutional leaders who all backed funding the full COLA. 

“I’ve often said, ‘I’m not an attorney,’ so I listen to our general counsel,” Regent Stephanie Goodman said during the meeting. “Well, I’m also not the president of a university, and so I’m going to listen to what all of you say and all of you are supporting this.”

Amid hard-to-predict enrollment trends and rapid inflation, the pay increases are coupled with expected budget cuts across the Nevada System of Higher Education’s (NSHE) eight institutions. Those cuts come during the best budget cycle in state history — and after some institutions have already held open vacancies and cut operating budgets as a means of funding the 12 percent pay boost for 2024.  

Faculty who backed the full COLA — including the Nevada Faculty Alliance (NFA) — argued that they are being squeezed by low salaries that have remained largely stagnant since the 2008 recession.

And though some students raised concerns over the increase during Friday’s meeting, other students and some faculty argued that Nevada’s student fees have only increased slightly over the last decade and would still remain relatively low compared with other states in the region.

Student leaders at the undergraduate and graduate level told regents that they largely supported the move, with student bodies hesitant about the fee increase but willing to engage in what they described as “shared sacrifice.” 

There was not universal support — UNR Graduate Student Association (GSA) President Matthew Hawn told regents that his peers had concerns the increase could put pressure on international graduate students already struggling with the cost of living.

A $62 million shortfall

Ahead of Friday’s vote, regents were presented with two competing plans approved by an advisory committee made up of students, faculty and administrators in a bid to cover the $62 million system-wide shortfall triggered by the COLAs. Both plans recommended the 5 percent student fee increase, but only one suggested the full 11 percent increase, delayed by one quarter to allow institutions more planning time and to cut the total amount of funding required.

The second rejected option would have opted for a 9.5 percent increase instead. That option would have saved less money in the short term ($10.5 million) compared with delaying the full 11 percent by one quarter ($19.3 million). 

In the meantime, budget documents submitted to regents show vastly different plans to cover the shortfall from institution to institution. 

Though UNR and UNLV combine for roughly 80 percent of the $62 million shortfall, UNLV has signaled it will cover the 11 percent COLA by sharply cutting operating budgets and tapping excess student fee dollars. UNR has signaled that 108 positions could be held open or eliminated altogether to save roughly the same amount of money. 

Faculty Senates at seven NSHE institutions supported the full 11 percent COLA, with only faculty from the Desert Research Institute (which does not receive state funding for research faculty) backing the reduced COLA. 

Still, faculty were not in unanimous agreement. During a report made to regents during a meeting Thursday, system Faculty Senate Chair Peter Reed said institutional surveys showed a roughly 2-to-1 split between faculty who favored the full 11 percent and those concerned about the potential cuts a full COLA could trigger. 

“In short, a shared solutions approach appears to be the only viable option,” Reed told the board. “Further, for all NSHE faculty, it seems there is deep concern and rising anxiety over how your decisions [Friday] will be implemented.”

Separately, institutions statewide have raised concerns over uneven enrollment patterns that have threatened to shrink overall budgets as state funding has remained relatively flat over the last decade. 

“My sister’s an executive at JP Morgan, and I called her one day to help me make a budget decision, and she told me directly — she said there’s only two ways you can solve that problem,” Nevada State University President DeRionne Pollard said during the meeting. “One is to reduce expenditures and one is to increase revenue.”

Time and again, university presidents, students and some faculty returned to one issue: legislative funding. UNR President Brian Sandoval said his “frustration” stemmed directly from the state funding levels for COLAs.

“At the end of the day, the money’s got to come from somewhere,” Sandoval said. “And now, at least on our campus, there’s going to be consequences for student services.”

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