SNC Satellites: The Bottom Line

SNC builds extension campus initiative around the region, raising concerns about quality


After a series of budget cuts totaling $2.1 million during the last two years, Sierra Nevada College’s board and administration is pursuing a novel strategy to balance the books: Launching low-cost degree-completion programs on community college campuses. But some faculty have reservations that this financially motivated strategy may compromise SNC’s academic mission.

In the fall semester of 2016, SNC partnered with Lake Tahoe Community College in South Lake Tahoe to offer a bachelor’s degree in global business management. SNC’s Board of Trustees has also extended this strategy to Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, where the plan is to launch a fall 2017 cohort. These low-tuition programs—the SNC cost per credit at LTCC is $382, while the cost per credit at the Incline Village campus is $900—make a bachelor’s degree possible for place-bound and non-traditional students. The extension campus initiative was launched through a donor gift.

“These programs are quite innovative,” said SNC Tahoe President Alan Walker. “When you look around at small liberal arts colleges, the concept of having remote academic extension centers where you are delivering degree programs off the main campus is highly unusual. You find this model at regional public universities; it’s very rare at private colleges like SNC.”

Some faculty members fear the addition of degree-completion campuses might diminish SNC’s longstanding liberal arts values and leave the region without an academic beacon for the liberal arts. SNC is Nevada’s only private liberal arts college.

“As long as the extension centers are liberal arts focused, I am in support,” faculty council vice-president Dan Aalbers said. “The big question is whether we will be able to retain our identity as a liberal arts college. There is no point in being economically sustainable if the quality of what we are providing goes down.”

Walker noted that according to his experience with higher education, SNC does not fit the profile of a traditional liberal arts institution. “There are no liberal arts colleges with more than half the students comprised of graduate students and whose biggest undergraduate major is business,” he said. “I am a firm believer in a liberal arts core, but we are not a traditional liberal arts college. We don’t have the typical liberal arts curriculum.”

English department chair June Saraceno, who has been at SNC since 1987, noted concerns similar to Aalbers’. “I hope SNC can always retain its liberal arts identity.”

While SNC has operated centers in Reno and Las Vegas for many years, they are focused on graduate degree programs in education-related disciplines. These programs and associated online classes represent nearly 50 percent of SNC’s overall enrollment. The extension campus initiative being driven by Walker, however, introduces bachelor’s degrees at satellite campuses.

The first satellite campus opened last fall in South Lake Tahoe with the launch of a global business management degree-completion program at Lake Tahoe Community College. Eleven students joined that first cohort. LTCC was an attractive partner to kick start Walker’s plan because the program appeals to students who want to complete their degrees but cannot travel to Incline Village because of family, economic or professional reasons.

“It allows SNC to expand its market and reach for students that would benefit from an SNC education,” Walker said. “It’s one strategy we have for growing the college. It grows enrollment.”

In the partnership’s first semester, SNC fell short of its goal of 30 students for the 2016/2017 start of the program when only 11 registered. The board anticipates higher enrollment for the fall of 2017 at LTCC and has a goal to launch TMCC in Reno with 60 students.

Faculty council president Samantha Bankston fears that by detaching SNC’s liberal arts identity from the extension campus degrees, it will erode the college’s liberal arts mission.

“There is value that cannot be quantified in numbers,” faculty council president Samantha Bankston said.

Bankston is critical of SNC’s focus on profit generation over quality education. She noted that universities were created with the knowledge that they would be operating at a loss, “because what we give society is so great.”

Walkers believes that extension campuses do not erode the college’s liberal arts mission. “There is no question that there is a core that includes liberal arts. I don’t think our (expansion) strategy has anything to do with our liberal arts curriculum.”

As part of SNC’s expansion effort, SNC business department chair Kendra Wong added an additional title to her business card: Extension Center Academic Liaison. Wong is the leading coordinator of logistics for the centers, including admissions, advising, hosting open houses and communicating with faculty.

“I think of myself as a puppeteer, pulling all of the strings to make it happen,” Wong said. Her schedule is so overloaded that she predicts the college will need to replace her as business department chair as the extension center strategy grows.

According to Wong and Walker, the revenue from the extension center is meant to help support the general operations for undergraduate education at Incline Village.

“Yes, we’ve had to do budget cuts. But the idea is that if the extension centers are going to be as successful as we predict them to be, then some of the things that we cut can come back because they are funded through the revenue that is generated from the extension centers,” Wong said.

Aalbers believes that SNC needs to look at issues that lie beyond “the bottom line. We have to be about producing something that we can all be proud of,” Aalbers said.