Vickie Shields is the provost at Nevada State College, by far the fastest growing higher education institution in Nevada over the last decade. Enrollment more than doubled between 2015 and 2020, surging from around 3,500 students to more than 7,200.
All the while, she said, NSC grew and hired teaching faculty from a pool large enough to generate 40 to 50 applicants per position.
“It depends on the discipline, but [today] some of the searches have maybe one applicant,” Shields said.
The drying-up of applicants is not a universal trend throughout all departments in all institutions within the Nevada System of Higher Education. But the Great Resignation of higher education faculty is becoming increasingly visible, both in Nevada and the nation.
Pinpointing how large turnover for this academic year will be remains difficult. Position shortages are not universal, and like many trends within the employment market of higher education, numbers differ from discipline to discipline, market to market.
Internal data show the total number of full-time and part-time employees did dip by 2.7 percent from 2019 to 2020, though that data does not reflect “post-pandemic” shifts of the last year. Comparisons are also strained by the use of vacancies during the pandemic as a cost-saving measure.
Both interviews with faculty and administrators as well as data presented before lawmakers this spring show that not all vacancies created in 2020 have been filled one-to-one, as some institutions have prioritized academic advisers over less-urgent teaching openings and as some new positions have come at a higher cost than the old.
Applicants for humanities jobs at UNR, for instance, have remained relatively steady amid the turmoil, according to UNR Provost Jeff Thompson.
But as the incentives to stay or enter higher education have diminished, faculty and administrators told VT they’ve seen a visible rise in faculty and staff leaving their institutions or fleeing higher education altogether — and a pipeline of new talent that bears little resemblance to its pre-pandemic form.
These departures have created new pressures on multiple fronts. For students and graduate student workers, it has deepened the looming specter of tuition increases (or stagnant, low wages) as a possible solution for strained budgets.
For faculty, many say they have been asked to do more work for less money, as inflation has eaten away at modest salary gains and the high cost of living in Reno and Las Vegas has reduced the likelihood that some open positions are filled at all.
And for institutions, the pressure has compounded as prestige has increased — namely affecting UNR and UNLV, which held on to their coveted “R1” or “very high research activity” status late last year. That came despite warnings from administrators that they are falling short in the nationwide competition for the same limited talent pool to help maintain those ratings, a shortcoming compounded by a much lower average per-pupil funding amount.
“When you multiply that [per-pupil shortfall] out across the number of full-time equivalents we have at UNLV … it’s well over $100 million less than some of our peers,” UNLV Provost Chris Heavey said.
A matter of compensation — and cost
In the vast ecosystem of higher education employment, perhaps no single line item has been so static in Nevada as salary increases, either for merit or for cost of living.
“That has been an issue for the past few years,” said Leila Pazargadi, an English professor at NSC. “But now we have a rapidly rising inflation rate, and it’s going to become an even greater issue, and I would say, almost like a traumatic flashpoint for faculty.”
For the first time since the Great Recession, average salary increases at both UNLV and UNR shrank to just 0.8 percent, according to survey data collected by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).
That follows a national trend of faltering higher education wages, as the AAUP reported an average salary increase of just 2 percent nationwide — among the smallest increases since the group began tracking salaries in 1972 and, adjusted for inflation, an amount that actually represents a 5 percent decrease in real average salaries nationwide.
Though many within NSHE — especially tenure-track faculty and administrators — are well paid relative to Nevada’s median household income of about $62,000 (a low-end salary for a tenure-track professor might still exceed $80,000, with average salaries in the mid-$90,000 range), higher education employees have long criticized salary advancement structures that have either been limited or nonexistent in the wake of deep budget cuts implemented during the Great Recession.
In 2021, those employees found some relief in a pair of new policies meant to ease out of the financial stagnation. First, they would receive a cost of living raise of 1 percent, a policy applied to all state employees. Second, they would get dedicated merit pay increases of another 1 percent, in a semi-restoration of a program axed during the 2008 recession.
Both programs came with caveats. For instance, state workers with collective bargaining agreements received 3 percent cost of living increases, while those without such agreements — including higher education employees under a unique collective bargaining structure between the state and NSHE — were limited to 1 percent.
Moreover, the merit pay funding is pulled not from additional state funding, as was the pre-recession norm, but from existing institutional operations budgets.
Totaling upwards of $2.5 million at the largest institutions, provosts at UNLV and UNR said the money now being used for merit pay amounts to roughly 20 tenure-track positions at each institution — about one-fifth of the 100-or-so hires expected at each university for the new academic year (a number uniquely inflated this year by new attempts to backfill positions left vacant by the pandemic).
Still, some faculty said they or others they know are left with stagnant salaries that cannot match rising costs, especially for disciplines that are generally lower-paid. Housing costs in Reno and Las Vegas have risen by double digits over just the past year.
“Some faculty who are primary earners, the only one working, were unable to demonstrate the necessary salary [to rent in Las Vegas],” said Laura Naumann, a psychology professor at NSC. “And that just seems really problematic in terms of — how can we recruit faculty, but also retain them if they can’t get basic housing for them and their own families?”
At the same time, the pandemic upended the actual business of higher education, forcing professors — especially teaching faculty — to upend lesson plans to accommodate the necessary reality of hybrid or online instruction.
Those pandemic changes occurred under a statewide furlough in 2020 that reduced working-hours for faculty across NSHE, often incentivizing faculty to work unpaid hours in order to complete lesson plans or other work in a now-shortened work week.
“You have faculty who are essentially overworked and underpaid,” said Pazargadi, the English professor. “They are being asked to transition departments, curriculums, pedagogical strategies from [in person] to an online platform very quickly … without any extra compensation or recognition of their work other than a pat on the back, which really didn’t get food on the table at the end of the day.”
Gov. Steve Sisolak did announce last month that his 2023-2025 budget will include furlough restorations to the tune of $25 million, funded by federal COVID aid money. But even if those restorations are approved by lawmakers next year, it will come roughly three years after those furloughs ended.
“I think the issue is going to be for future faculty hires,” Pazargadi said. “How are you going to attract them here on this wage with these rising housing costs? Who’s going to come here, when you can go to these other other booming economies that are like, ‘We still have cheap housing and a really competitive salary?’”
Competition from within and without
Because higher education departments are often their own unique labor markets — STEM fields are not the humanities, which are not technical programs — directly assessing the impact of the Great Resignation in Nevada remains difficult.
But in certain high-demand sectors, administrators said, the competitiveness issues are glaring.
Case in point: Nursing.
Every degree-granting public institution in Nevada maintains a nursing program, including several — namely the two universities and Nevada State College, which trains by far the most nurses at NSHE — that have grown significantly in the last few years.
But those nursing programs require a high number of instructors relative to other programs, often maintaining student-teacher ratios of around 8 to 1. In seeking to fill those instructor positions, institutions have come up against a nursing shortage at area hospitals, where nurses are now being offered tens of thousands of dollars in signing bonuses to come and work.
“Our nursing faculty are our highest paid faculty, but [we] can’t always compete with a salary that, especially experienced, nurses could go back into,” Shields said. “The advantage of making a little less money and having a better lifestyle [as an instructor] has always worked for us … We’ve never had these kinds of signing bonuses dangled in front of people.”
As the private sector has offered more competitive salaries, so too have older nursing instructors, often those with Ph.D.s, begun to “age out” of the workforce, according to UNLV President Keith Whitfield.
“If you’re not competitive, you’re either not going to keep them there, or they [nursing faculty] are looking at saying, ‘Well, why should I do that? I can make more money being an ICU nurse than I can ever make being a professor,’” Whitfield told VT in an interview earlier this month.
Even in other fields, a surge of open jobs for data science and statistics is pulling from a pool of faculty in STEM or other-data heavy fields. UNLV Provost Chris Heavey pointed to one faculty member recently poached by Facebook, saying many tech giants “offer salaries so much higher than what we offer that we can’t even consider a counteroffer.”
But it’s not just the private sector at play, as other universities — especially other research universities — have intensified their recruitment efforts among an increasingly small pool of highly qualified candidates.
“We’ve fallen behind, both in real dollars and in relative dollars, many of our competitive peers,” Heavey said, pointing to both lower cost of living elsewhere in addition to other institutions “offering much higher salaries right out of the gate.”
That internal academic competition is a process that doesn’t stop. Heavey said another UNLV professor, who had just secured federal grant money and began his career at the university, accepted an offer at another institution even after UNLV matched their salary offer.
As those types of salaries increase — but the budget does not — downward pressure on salaries increases, triggering a worsening problem of salary compression as new hires outpace the salaries of long-term employees.
A path ahead through Carson City
When asked about solutions, several administrators pointed to one simple — if historically unlikely — answer: More state money.
“As a percentage of state expenditures, higher education has actually declined over time,” Heavey said. “And so if we want to have a successful higher education system, I don’t see any solution that’s going to get us there other than some additional investment from the state and potentially even some additional cost being passed on to students.”
Higher education funding in Nevada operates through two separate revenue “buckets,” with the $1 billion annual total split roughly three-to-two between $640 million in state appropriations and $430 million in “self-supporting funds” — a catch-all for any non-state revenue such as tuition and fees.
Colleges and universities across the country, in the face of often highly variable state-funded budgets, have turned to large tuition increases that have come under scrutiny as student loan debts have ballooned over the last 40 years.
But Nevada maintains a relatively low tuition cost compared to other states, and the Board of Regents has adopted a “predictable pricing” system whereby any tuition increase is tied to a higher education inflation index and locked in place for four years, essentially tying a student’s tuition rate to the year they begin their college career.
As institutions have grown, they have also seen budgets grow as a function of the system’s funding formula, which apportions funds across institutions by “weighted student credit hours,” or a measure of completed credits weighted by how expensive some classes are to teach relative to others.
Under those assumptions, Heavey and others argue that if the total “pie” of higher education does not grow, then “I don’t think any creative way to slice it is going to solve this problem.”
“In the end, if we don’t get some kind of infusion of additional funding, we are going to essentially shrink as a university in terms of the number of employees that we can afford to pay,” Heavey said.
To some extent, institutions have already sought to use creative methods to patch the most pressing needs, relying on part-time adjuncts or full-time, but non-tenured, positions to cover the teaching loads still required as part of the university and college mission (and mandated by certain accreditation requirements).
“But at some point, you run out of flexibility,” said Thompson, the UNR provost. “We have to teach [certain] courses, they’re part of the educational experience for our students. And we can be more efficient in class size, we can be more efficient in [course] offerings, but we have really squeezed that limit. There’s not much left there.”
The immense pressure created by inflation and housing prices butting against the hard ceiling of state-supported budgets has also emerged visibly among graduate students, who have for months argued publicly that stipends for graduate assistantships — from classroom aides teaching courses and grading papers to research and laboratory aides — have become unsustainably low.
“We are barely surviving,” Roxana Morton, a Ph.D. student at UNR, told regents at a June 9 meeting. “What would you do with $1,680 a month? That is what most of us international students have each month after taxes [out] of a $1,900 assistantship. Paying rent, utilities, gas or transportation, loans, medical bills, childcare, food, tuition — the math does not add up.”
There remain some bright spots, and administrators expressed optimism at the dozen of new hires who are coming to the largest institutions in Nevada. At UNLV, for instance, Heavey touted a new strategy of “cluster hiring,” which draws in multiple new faculty across multiple disciplines, but who are all focused on a specific issue area, such as climate change.
Even so, the higher education system remains on track to face increasing economic pressure from all sides, leaving faculty — often those who have been at their institutions the longest — left in the lurch.
“We’re not just stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Heavey said. “We’re stuck between a bunch of rocks and a bunch of hard places.”
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