UNLV and the Nevada System of Higher Education have taken a lot of budget cuts over the past few years. Most people think the days of double-digit tuition and fees hikes and cutting university programs are over, but there’s a lot debate over where the money should go if the state has more to spend in its next budget.

The facts are pretty confusing. There are different budgets with similar names, there’s a funding formula that is famously hard to understand and that may be thrown out entirely. Some student leaders say one thing. Others say another. Faculty and staff leaders say a third.

Right now, the biggest debate centers on two issues: faculty and staff compensation and the funding formula. In this article, I’m going to try to explain the facts about the faculty and staff compensation discussion in really simple terms — words we can all understand, not Legislature lingo.

On Thursday, I’ll do the same thing with the funding formula.

Now, you’re going to have to bear with me because I’m going to use some really silly examples. But if all goes as planned, we’ll all understand each other a little better in the end.

Here goes.

There’s all this money in the state, right? Some of it comes from taxes — taxes on gaming and mining and Snickers bars and small businesses. And taxes on property. Remember that one.

The state government puts all that money into this account called the General Fund. Student tuition (that’s what we call what out-of-state students pay) and fees (what in-state students pay) also end up in the General Fund. Sort of.

This is where the funding formula comes in.

Let’s say you’re an in-state student. When you pay your $268.72 per credit, most of that (not certain fees, like the $2.47 you pay to CSUN) gets sent up to Carson City, where it’s lumped together with all the other fees paid by all the other college students in Nevada.

The money will all come back to NSHE (I mean it won’t go to pay for state welfare programs or parks and recreation.), but the money is divvied up among the nine NSHE budgets (including UNLV’s) according to this super-complicated formula.

Lots of people are really upset about how that formula redistributes the money the money UNLV students send up to the state because we don’t get back as much as we put into. But I’ll explain all that on Thursday. For now, all you need to know is that students in Las Vegas pay money, and it gets mixed in with all the money students pay to go to other schools.

Now, NSHE can’t run on student money alone. It relies on additional funds from the state — mostly taxpayer dollars — to supplement what it gets from the funding formula.

So the state gives NSHE some money from the General Fund.

But recently, the General Fund has been a lot smaller than usual. Remember those property taxes I told you to remember? Well, a lot of NSHE’s state funding comes from money the state makes off those. We all know Nevada was hit harder than any other state in the country when the housing market tanked. When property values went down, the General Fund shrunk.

When the General Fund shrunk, the state cut back in lots of areas — K-12 education, services for the poor and elderly, and, of course, higher education. The state also cut its payroll. That’s really, really important. It cut how much it gave to NSHE, but it also cut how much it gave to state employees.

NSHE told the state that it still needed just as much money as usual to run, but the state said, “Sorry, we don’t have as much money to give you this year. If you want to have anything close to the same amount to spend as you did last year, you’ll have to get that money from students.”

The state reduced the amount of its own money it gave to NSHE and told the Board of Regents to raise student tuition and fees to make up the difference.

The extra money students had to spend to fill in the gap went into that separate fund moderated by the funding formula.

(Actually, the state stopped running the formula for a few years and based funding for each school on that school’s funding from the budget before, but that doesn’t make a big difference in this explanation.)

Here’s where it gets really tricky. Remember how I said that when revenue dropped, the state cut the amount it gave to NSHE and the amount it spent on state employees’ pay? Well, faculty and staff are state employees. So they got their pay and benefits cut, too.

They didn’t take pay cuts because NSHE had less money. The state made the decision. Faculty and staff got less pay just like park workers and state accountants and DMV employees got less pay.

Think of it in terms of this classic analogy:

NSHE funding is a pie. The state bakes it with apples from two orchards.

The apples from Orchard A are used to bake cobblers and tortes, but the apples from Orchard B are only used in the NSHE pie.

Year after year, Orchard A yields fewer apples, so smaller cobblers and tortes are made, and fewer Orchard A apples are put in the pie.

But no one wants less pie (obviously), so more apples from Orchard B are used to make up some of the difference. They can’t make it all up, but the pie isn’t as small as it would be without the increase in Orchard B apples.

So back to the real world.

The UNLV Faculty Senate is asking that the state restore compensation to faculty and staff to the level it was at before the cuts began.

The cuts to faculty and staff pay and benefits happened because all state employees took the same cut, and the Faculty Senate says that the state should give that money back if it has more money this time they draw up the budgets.

UNLV faculty and staff are paid out the university’s budget, which, as we’ve already determined, are made up of state and student dollars — apples from both orchards.

The Faculty Senate says that the restoration should come from state money, not student money.

But once they’re baked in the pie, all the apples look the same. There’s no way to tell which ones are from which orchard.

More importantly, if there are more Orchard A apples this year to go around, why not use fewer Orchard B apples rather than making the whole pie bigger?

That’s why some student representatives argue that whether the Faculty Senate asks that student money not be spent to fund compensation restoration or not, restoring pay and benefits would come at students’ expense.

They don’t mean that students would actually be paying more. They mean that if the state can afford to give some money back to NSHE, it should go to help students start paying less — not to pay faculty and staff more.

Of course, the issue is much more nuanced than my pie analogy can convey.

Perhaps most difficult of all is the question of who is struggling the most as a result of the cuts in state spending.

Remember, adding more apples from Orchard B helped keep the pie from shrinking to the size of one of those teeny tiny pies in the Starbucks pastry case, but the pie is still smaller than it was before.

Students are paying more, but not so much that faculty and staff were able to keep their pay and benefits the same.

That’s what people call “shared sacrifice.”

The Board of Regents has said that restoring faculty and staff pay would be the first thing it would do if it got more state money, and the Faculty Senate agrees with that priority.

Some in CSUN agree, but others say no.

Those who disagree say that students continuing to keep paying higher tuition and fees while faculty and staff get a break is like taking a pie to the face.

In-state students will see their fees rise a net 5.1 percent on July 1. Those who oppose the Faculty Senate resolution say: Don’t raise compensation in a year when students are being asked to give more.


PIE PIECES is a two-part series in which Haley Etchison explains complex education funding issues using simple analogies.

Contact Haley Etchison at news@unlvrebelyell.com.