Class warfare

Critics of a new proposed admissions policy for Nevada’s universities say those who will be hurt most should be consulted

UNR tutor coordinator Marsha Urban, here advising philosophy and anthropology major Neil Puckett, says if the Nevada university GPA is hiked, her office will handle the change smoothly.

UNR tutor coordinator Marsha Urban, here advising philosophy and anthropology major Neil Puckett, says if the Nevada university GPA is hiked, her office will handle the change smoothly.

Photo By David Robert

The Nevada Board of Regents last week put off a decision of when to raise eligibility requirements for the University of Nevada’s Reno and Las Vegas campuses.

The delay came amid rising criticism that higher education in Nevada has become more and more an elite program for whites and Asians. Minority parents discussed the issue at a meeting Tuesday in Reno.

The impetus for a hike in grade point average, or GPA, for admission came from the Las Vegas campus, particularly its president Carol Harter, who resigned last week. The Reno campus initially was resistant but eventually went along. Under the proposal, the GPA admission requirement would jump from 2.75 to 3.0.

The hike has already been approved by the regents to go into effect in 2010. Last week, the regents were trying to decide whether to advance that date to 2007. But a growing group of voices say the entire plan should be abandoned because, together with a hike in the GPA requirement to qualify for Millennium Scholarships, going to Nevada’s universities is becoming more difficult for those who need it most.

Richard Siegel of the American Civil Liberties Union said studies show that family income and grade point average track almost exactly, including in Nevada. And he said higher education leaders have not consulted with low-income communities before moving toward higher GPAs. A change that will damage low income people in higher education is coming, he said, and they don’t know about it. The regents should go to them, Siegel said.

“When the whites decide what’s good for the blacks, the Native Americans and the Latinos without effective consultation of the leadership of that community—that is the very definition of paternalism.”

He said figures show that in Nevada, community colleges generally have not functioned as a bridge to four-year institutions, which makes what happens at the university level even more important to low-income people—and makes consultation with them essential.

Siegel, a member of the public/private partnership group Education Collaborative of Washoe County, said, “The impact of incomes on Millennium Scholarships is just striking. … To say that it doesn’t follow that blacks, Native Americans and Latinos don’t track with that income data is nonsense.”

Siegel said studies have demonstrated clearly that low-income people—including minorities—have disproportionately suffered from a rise in the GPA required to qualify for Millennium Scholarships.

“The Millennium Scholarship had already been put significantly out of reach of minority and poor students,” he said. “By moving it from 3.0 to 3.25, they had moved that program to a position where it is now much more than ever a kind of white/Asian program for people with average or above-average family income.”

The Millennium Scholarship program was created by the Nevada Legislature at Gov. Kenny Guinn’s recommendation in 1999 to make college affordable for all Nevada students with a B average. They are funded by tobacco settlement monies.

But the legislature has made the scholarships steadily less accessible to low-income students. Many such students must work during their high school years, with a resulting unfavorable impact on their GPA, and have reduced access to tutors.

When the Millennium Scholarship program was created, a 3.0 high-school GPA was required, and recipients needed to maintain a 2.0 college GPA. Now it’s 3.25 in high school with a 2.6 college average. And the time period of eligibility has been shortened from eight to six years after high-school graduation.

There is an alternative admissions process for freshmen who don’t meet the standard requirements. Students who can’t qualify for university admission by their GPA can, alternatively, be admitted by submitting test scores from SAT or ACT testing, with the minimum requirements being 1040 combined or 22 composite, respectively.

“I do think students will still apply for special admissions, and we tell them how to do that in the letter they receive advising them they have not been admitted,” said Shannon Ellis, UNR’s vice president of Student Services.

But higher test scores may be just as difficult as higher grades for employed students in high school.

In an essay in a Las Vegas newspaper, Siegel and Lee Rowland said the higher GPA requirement could have unexpected consequences. It will probably act as an incentive for students in high school to take less-challenging courses, so they can meet the 3.0, they said. And, further, “many of those [students] with higher GPAs need remedial courses at the university level.” Siegel and Rowland mention the Washoe County School District’s Gateway Curriculum program as a reason to postpone the new enrollment requirements until 2010.

The Gateway Curriculum will require that high school students take four years of math, three years of science, and remain on campus for six classes in senior year. This is a change from the current requirement of three years of math and two years of science. The change will take effect this fall.

At a meeting of representatives of community groups in Reno Tuesday evening, several people expressed concern about the purpose of the GPA hike, calling it a disservice to low-income Nevadans. One with links to the university said he had reason to believe that Harter was not the strongest booster of the change. “The person behind this is [university chancellor] Jim Rogers. … The chancellor is the lever. I would not rely on the board [to stop the proposal].”

Another said, “We know the reason [for the proposal] was to give UNLV a boost in the U.S. News rankings.” (U.S. News & World Report magazine puts out an annual issue ranking colleges.) He expressed impatience with the “meritocratic approaches” to higher education favored by UNR faculty members at the expense of life experiences.

Upon being briefed about Las Vegas groups that got organized against the change and attended a previous regents meeting, the participants laid plans for the next two regents sessions.

Representatives of educational functions that would be affected by a university GPA hike generally said they would cope with a change.

At UNR, tutor coordinator Marsha Urban said, “I don’t think the new enrollment requirements will hurt our program. We tutor many Millennium scholars who need to keep at least a B-minus average to maintain their scholarships. And they’re smart kids.”

Urban said the program will likely be used by these new students coming in, even though their GPAs will be in the higher range.

“They’ll still need help, and that’s what we’re here for,” said Urban.

“If the program is put into effect in 2007 instead of 2010,” said Reginald Chhen Stewart, director of the Center for Student Cultural Diversity at UNR, “teachers will have less time to prepare the students for the new standard. High school seniors in 2006 will not have time to prepare—they are already too far into the system.” Stewart said the original 2010 date is needed to let the students work up to the 3.0 GPA and to work on their test scores. He also commended the Gateway Curriculum, though he said it should be called a college prep program. Nevertheless, Stewart says the change can be handled.

“I see no problem with increasing the enrollment requirements,” said Stewart. “It is within the purview of any university to change the entrance requirements.”

Stewart expressed concern at the lack of a state college in the north to accommodate students not admitted to the university. “The south has Nevada State College as an alternative to UNLV,” said Stewart. “What does the north have?”

There is no full-fledged state college in the north to provide an alternative solid education to students denied from UNR. In the eyes of some community members, a new state college in the north is the next step. (A state college is a four-year campus with a higher teaching load and without the research emphasis that UNR and UNLV have.)

UNR student services vice president Shannon Ellis says, “I believe the Nevada System of Higher Education fully intends to have colleges throughout the state including up north,” said Ellis.

The regents may discuss the GPA issue again in March, but are unlikely to act until June.