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2011 May 30 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Budget Crisis Threatens Rural Nevada Colleges

ELKO, Nev. (AP) — Great Basin College resembles the grounds of any small college, a cluster of brick buildings arrayed around a fountain and a clock tower.

But this campus doesn’t stop at the dorms or the ball fields. Its service area takes in a swath of mountains and sagebrush larger than the state of Georgia.

It could be the most far-reaching school you’ve never heard of.

“We’ve got a large service area, but there are not a lot of people in it,” says college President Carl Diekhans.

Great Basin’s service territory includes 54 percent of Nevada’s total land area but less than 5 percent of its population. As a result, the school ranks as the state’s second smallest community college by enrollment, with about 4,000 students, most of them part-time.

But its effect is amplified in six of Nevada’s most isolated counties, where the college turns townfolk into teachers, nurses and other needed professionals.

Schools, hospitals and mines get skilled workers. Rural residents get careers and a reason to stay in communities hundreds of miles from the nearest big city.

“We’re doing what we’re supposed to do,” says Bret Murphy, dean of technical trade programs and other applied sciences. “We’re a community college. We’re serving the community and its industries.”

Now school officials insist that mission is jeopardized by mounting state budget cuts and, worse, talk of consolidating Nevada’s community colleges. Diekhans calls it the worst crisis he has seen since he was hired as a math and computing instructor at Great Basin in 1980.

“I get a little possessive. This is my college, and I don’t like people messing with it,” he says. “They’re really messing with it right now.”

Great Basin is Nevada’s oldest community college, predating by two years the state community college system itself.

In 1967, 10 Elko businessmen launched the school to train local residents for retail jobs and clerical positions. Early on, Elko Community College got all its funding from local residents. The state stepped in, but immediately found itself strapped for cash.

The college was propped up in its second year by a last-minute gift of $250,000 from an eccentric billionaire and recent transplant to southern Nevada, Howard Hughes.

The school was eventually renamed Northern Nevada Community College and added to the Nevada System of Higher Education.

In the late 1980s, it expanded into Ely and then Winnemucca, and its name was changed once more in 1996 — to Great Basin College — to better reflect its service area.

Today the college offers about 40 associate degrees and seven different bachelor degree programs. It has branch campuses in Battle Mountain, Ely, Pahrump and Winnemucca and 13 satellite centers in smaller towns from Jackpot to Amargosa Valley.

Last fall, the college expanded into the Nye County seat of Tonopah, where it set up an interactive video class inside a room at a local casino.

You don’t deliver classes across 62,000 square miles by sticking to convention. About a third of Great Basin’s courses are offered through an interactive video network that enables a professor in Pahrump to simultaneously teach political science to students in Winnemucca, Ely and Elko.

At some more remote sites, most instruction is by television and computer. Tests and term papers are turned in by fax or email. Larger class projects are boxed up and put in the mail.

Sean Pitts, who teaches history part-time at the branch campus in Ely, says interactive video takes some getting used to, but is effective.

“You can fill a class of 20 people from five different locations,” Pitts said.

Without that ability to draw students from across the service area, a lot of classes would have to be canceled because of insufficient enrollment.

The system is strung together with televisions, cameras and computers that are serviceable but “far from new,” says Bob Hannu, interactive video coordinator for the college. “We use equipment that’s probably been discontinued by the manufacturer but it still works.”

Great Basin College uses roughly half of all bandwidth available to the state’s system of higher education.

Longtime professor Frank Daniels jokes that he’s less of an interactive video instructor and more of a “television personality.”

“I’ve had classes where there’s no one in the room. I’m talking to the camera the whole time,” he says from the college’s branch campus in Ely.

Oddly, though, Daniels says he gets to interact with his students far more now than he ever did when teaching and getting his doctorate degree at the University of Florida, where 50,000 students share one 2,000-acre campus.

The staff at Great Basin has been told to prepare for $7.3 million in cuts over the next two years, including a $2.6 million hit in July, followed by another $4.7 million next year.

Diekhans figures the loss of 30 percent of the college workforce will limit the ability to provide services to students.

The college already has absorbed about $1 million in state cuts that reduced its total operating budget to just under $19 million.

Those cuts, two years ago, resulted in buyouts for eight full-time employees and pink slips for another five, including one member of the teaching faculty.

Diekhans says the college stands to lose the equivalent of another 36 full-time workers over the next two years. Among them are professors, administrators and support staff.

Students, meanwhile, can expect to see tuition increase as much as 13 percent this fall and again next fall, a hike that could mean more than $1,000 in additional costs over two years for those with a full schedule of upper-level classes.

That’s on top of the gradual, 25 percent rise in tuition over the past five years. Meanwhile, course choices shrink.

Budget cuts, however, are only part of the threat. Diekhans is far more concerned about what might happen with a state community college merger. He considers that a death sentence for Great Basin’s satellite centers in rural Nevada.

It might not happen right away, he says, but eventually the centers would be scrapped or starved out of existence by a larger college that doesn’t consider the satellites a priority.

Ely Mayor Jon Hickman credits the college with providing White Pine County High School graduates an affordable alternative to moving away for college, perhaps never to return. It also has helped the local hospital deal with an almost constant nursing shortage.

But if people in town are worried about budget cuts at the college, Hickman hasn’t heard from any of them. He thinks it would take something pretty dramatic to get residents to rally around Great Basin and stop taking it for granted.

In much of northeastern Nevada, a mining boom has helped insulate places like Elko from the ravages of the Great Recession.

Here, there is no foreclosure crisis, no collapse in home prices, no double-digit unemployment rate.

Only sectors that depend on state funding are feeling the pinch.

With staff cuts and enrollment caps, Great Basin College is turning away students from its technical trade programs for the first time. What once was an “open-door policy” now involves applications and a waiting list.

At age 48, Marcy Funk is about to embark on a new career as a registered nurse.

The former stay-at-home mom will graduate in May with an associate degree and start work right away at Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital in Elko.

Her husband, Craig, is a year ahead of her. He got his associate degree from Great Basin College last May and now works nights at the hospital while he pursues his bachelor’s in nursing.

Before he enrolled at the college, Craig Funk spent 22 years with Newmont Mining Corp.

“And had this program not been here, he’d probably still be working in the mines,” Marcy Funk says.

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