PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS Higher education has taken a beating in Nevada since 2007, one of several factors that brings Nevada’s national rankings down.

Nevada began the first decade of this century with high expectations. Gov. Kenny Guinn’s administration was taking aim at some of the quality of life indicators that often make the state unappealing to business and young marrieds, and some of them such as the teen pregnancy rate, were showing some improvement.

Then 2007 hit the state, bringing with it both the recession and the governorship of Jim Gibbons. It was a one-two punch that sent Nevada reeling.

In a national survey in December, a Boston/Washington, D.C., think tank called Opportunity Nation, in partnership with the Social Science Research Council in Brooklyn, released figures that reflected the damage. It ranked Nevada dead last among the states in offering opportunity to businesses and for children (“Opportunity doesn’t knock,” RN&R, Dec. 19, 2013).

Now, the two organizations are back with further information on the topic, this time tracking the same topic over a longer term—the past 40 years. And the findings are just as unfavorable for Nevada.

The new report takes the same kind of approach as the original study—ranking states, the District of Columbia, and the United States generally by their economies, education, and civic engagement (the degree to which residents are involved in community activities). This time it monitors the same kind of data from 1970 to 2010 to show long term trends. Nevada is shown slowly sinking.

The three areas were ranked in this way:

• Job market indicators, unemployment, income equity, housing affordability, poverty levels, and access to banking were among the indicants used to adjudge local and state economies.

• Preschool enrollment, high school graduation rates, and number of adults with college degrees were used to rank education.

• Membership in civic groups, churches, sports leagues, the level of young people who were both without jobs and out of school, health care rankings, rates of volunteerism and violent crime were used to rank community life.

“Only two states—Nevada and Michigan—saw a decline in their Historical Report score between 1970 and 2010,” the report reads. “Michigan’s biggest challenges were, unsurprisingly, in the economic realm. … The worst decades for Michigan on these indicators were the 1970s and the 2000s, which, of course, encompassed the Great Recession. Nevada’s decline is linked in particular to one decade. From 2000, when Nevada ranked 40th among the 50 states plus Washington, D.C., to 2010, when it was at the very bottom of the Opportunity Scale, the state faced steep struggles across all three areas of the report. In the area of jobs and local economy, every state saw negative impacts on economic opportunity during this decade due to the Great Recession, but Nevada and Michigan experienced the worst declines.”

The report says Nevada has joined “a set of states that have consistently struggled with the opportunities available to their residents. Most prominent among them are Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and New Mexico, four states that have been among the bottom-ranked five states throughout most of the four-decade period. As is discussed above, Nevada only joined this group of opportunity-poor states in 2010.”

This was a somewhat surprising finding because Nevada has so frequently, over a period of decades, placed in the same segment of numerous national rankings with Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

The economic section of the study further reports, “Ohio, Nevada and Michigan saw the greatest setbacks in the jobs and local economy dimension of the Historical Report. Between 1970 and 2010, these three states saw their scores in this dimension fall by more than 35 percent from their original 1970 values.”

In education, the report reads, “Between 1970 and 2010, the state with the greatest absolute increase in the education dimension was Massachusetts, and the state with the smallest increase was Nevada. Both states improved their education indicators between 1970 and 1980, but then diverged, with Massachusetts making strong gains from the 1990s onwards while Nevada’s score fell or stagnated in every decade after 1980. … Looking more closely at recent state-level trends, between 2000 and 2010, the trend was mostly positive with only four states experiencing a decrease in the rate of on-time high school graduation rates—Nevada, Utah, Connecticut and the District of Columbia. While the U.S. average for students completing high school four years after they enter ninth grade is about 78 percent, Nevada, the state with the lowest rate, has a rate that is just under 58 percent. This is in marked contrast with states like Vermont and Wisconsin, where over 90 percent of students finish high school on time.”

The study also ranked educational accomplishment at higher and lower levels.

In 1970, 1980 and 1990, Nevada did not place in the bottom five of states in pre-school enrollment, but by 2000, it placed above only North Dakota. By 2010 it was last in the nation.

The figures for the number of people who completed work for an associate college degree or higher were positive, but were not competitive with other states:

“There were no states for which the percent of the population who had acquired an associate’s degree or higher decreased between 1970 and 2010, and only one state—Nevada—where this positive gain was less than 10 percentage points.”

Just from 2009 to 2012, Nevada cut higher education funding by nearly one third—30.74 percent.

On education overall, Nevada was described as “least improved” over the four decades.

On the community life ranking, the report says, “Many states saw negligible improvement in these indicators over this period and, as mentioned above, Nevada saw its score on the community life dimension decrease, experiencing a loss of almost 12 percent. The period of most drastic decline in Nevada was from 1970 and 1980; the violent crime rate increased by nearly 130 percent over the course of this decade. Between 1980 and 2000, Nevada regained ground on its community life score only to see some of these gains reversed between 2000 and 2010 when the violent crime rate jumped, breaking a nationwide pattern of decline.”

In 2010, only the District of Columbia placed below Nevada on the ranking for violent crime. Once again, in the community life category, Nevada was designated “least improved” over the course of the 40 years.

One paragraph of the report summed up many of its findings: “In education, important gains have been made across the nation in meeting the new requirements of today’s knowledge economy, but Nevada saw the slowest progress. And in the area of community life, the decline in Nevada was extreme. In fact, Nevada was the only state with a decline in this set of indicators from 1970 to 2010, mostly in the last decade of this period due to a rise in youth disconnection—one in five young people in Nevada ages 16 to 24 were neither in school nor working in 2010—and a dramatic increase in violent crimes.”

Washoe County School Board member Howard Rosenberg, who also spent 12 years at a higher education regent, noted that the report halts at 2010.

“Numbers have improved between 2010 and 2014,” he said. “So at the point where they stopped their investigation, yes, it’s probably true. But we have made positive improvement since then.”

The report publicized Nevada’s frailty across the nation, often bracketing it with the economic basket case of Michigan. The Washington Post reported, “Recent economic research has shown economic mobility varies widely across states and metropolitan areas. The Opportunity Index is no different: States began in 1970 with wildly varying opportunity scores, and they have improved (or in the case of Nevada and Michigan, fallen back) at different speeds since then.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...