LAS VEGAS — Mike Kyner didn't give much thought to college last year after graduating from high school in the small town of Beatty. All he could think about were the big paychecks down the highway in Las Vegas.
Now 18, he's earning $10.14 per hour washing dishes at Harrah's on the Strip. And that's fine with him.
"I thought about it [college], but the money wasn't there," he said.
Kyner and hundreds of other young adults in Nevada have discovered that working in casinos, construction or adult entertainment can mean big bucks. It's a trend that has education officials at odds with industries that are the state's economic lifeblood.
The numbers are stark. Nevada's high school dropout rate of 9.9% in 1996-97 was the nation's highest. Only 38% of high school graduates go on to college, compared with the national average of 65%.
"You don't really need to go to school to make $50,000," said Ray Willis, a spokesman for the school district in Clark County, home to Las Vegas and 60% of Nevada high school students. "The instant-gratification aspect of having money immediately is fairly powerful."
In Las Vegas, where parking attendants can bring in $50,000 a year and exotic dancers make hundreds of dollars a night, school officials are having a hard time persuading students to consider college. "We are fighting a battle of sorts with our main industry, which seems to be a magnet for kids who see an opportunity, a financial opportunity, that circumvents them [from] having to go to college," Willis said.
Take Summer Rivera, 18, who just started work as a hostess at Applebee's Neighborhood Grill and Bar. She believes she can make enough money to support the 4-month-old baby she is rearing with her boyfriend. She said she probably won't ever go to college.
Even some casino officials would like to change that sort of thinking.
"If you want to get ahead, you have to have more skills," said Arte Nathan, vice president of human resources at Mirage Resorts Inc. and head of the Governor's Workforce Development Commission.
Although young people can't work around the gambling tables until they turn 21, they can easily find work in casino restaurants or parking cars. And when they do turn 21, they don't need a diploma to deal cards or roll dice.
Nathan said making a diploma a prerequisite to obtaining a casino job would influence students to stay in school, but admits that casinos are unlikely to do that.
Many casinos do offer free general equivalency diploma classes to employees and will pay for some college courses. Of Mirage Resorts' 27,000 employees, about 15% don't have high school diplomas.
Nathan said not having a highly educated work force could eventually affect Nevada's chances of attracting new business.
Clark County schools are trying several programs to push students toward college. But at Western High School, where the local community college offered a free college class to seniors, only 45 of 400 seniors took part this year.
Nikki Adams works 56 hours a week as a hostess at the Hard Rock Cafe and as a hostess at the Samba Grill inside the Mirage hotel-casino. A 1997 high school graduate, the 20-year-old said she is saving money to go to college, but doesn't know when that will be.
District officials are proposing lengthening the school day, increasing services for at-risk students and adding a program to lure dropouts back for their diploma.
"The schools can't do it alone," Willis said. "It's a challenge the whole community faces."