Changing the Game on College Funding

We have all heard the stories (and jokes) about college students who are on the five-, six-, or even seven-year plan.  Those students who love their college years so much, that they simply never want to leave those glory days.  Some maximize the financial aid packages available to them, some have generous families, and others just find a way to stick around their hopeful alma mater.

What few tend to talk about is, for most public colleges and universities, these professional students are big business.  Most state institutions of higher education receive public support based on enrollment numbers.  So while a typical student who graduates in the expected four years would could for four “credits” when it comes to state dollars, that student on the six-year plan counts for six.  Assuming new student enrollment numbers (both freshmen and transfers) remain steady, or increase, every year, those who stick around for an extra year or three can become a financial boon to the institution at which they are camping out.  For some institutions, there is little incentive to see students actually graduate.  As long as they remain enrolled, they are cherished.
But how do such “long-term” learning plans meet with our current calls for educational return on investment, plans to boost the number of U.S. postsecondary degreeholders, or expectations that today’s college students will fill the workforce needs of tomorrow?  Unfortunately, they often don’t.  Many students who extend their stays don’t graduate, leaving with more than a half-decade of experience and memories, but no degree to show for it.  As the nation looks to measure the effectiveness of states and their high schools based on our ability to graduate students from secondary school in four years (those who gain a diploma four years after starting ninth grade), we have few rubrics to really measure the effectiveness of postsecondary education.
Until now.
Over at USA Today, Mary Beth Marklein reports on a growing trend to link college graduation to college funding.  It seems like a simple idea long overdue.  Higher education spending coming from state government would be tied to the number of students graduating (or at least the number completing courses).  The desire is results.  If states are going to support public colleges and universities, they want their own ROI.  They want assurances that those taxpayer dollars are resulting in degree holders prepared to hold the jobs and contribute to the economy of the state that has been subsidizing their education for the past four or more years.
USA Today spotlights a couple of states that are looking to break new ground on college funding ROI, including:
* Ohio, which seeks to tie 100 percent of funding to “course and degree completion”
* Indiana, which is traveling a similar path to Ohio
* Louisiana, looking to tie 25 percent of funding to “student success”
* Missouri, basing finance for allied health and other programs on how students do on licensing exams
* Washington, funding community and technical colleges based on specific student performance hurdles
This is not a new trend, but it is taking on greater intensity.  More than half of states have tried such ROI measures over the last three decades.  Nearly half of those who have tried it have abandoned it.  Some of the best results can be seen in states such as Florida, where tough ROI measures have actually resulted in a 43 percent increase in graduation rates and an 18 percent increase in enrollment for the Sunshine State’s community colleges over the last decade.
In the coming years, we are likely to see more states looking to go down the path of the Buckeye State, particularly if Ohio successfully implements it 100-percent funding plan.  Just a few months ago, President Obama set a national goal that the United States would have the highest percentage of postsecondary degree holders in the world by the year 2020.  And the feds are looking to invest $2.5 billion into efforts to boost college completion rates.  If we are going to hit those goals, we need to turn out significantly more college graduates.  To do so, we need to transform college goers into college completers.  And to do that, we need to hold our institutions of higher education accountable (particularly since placing responsibility solely with the students has so far done us little good).
These are bold moves by state legislatures and state higher education boards.  Accountability is a tough issue, particularly when there are so many “reasons” why one fails to complete a degree path.  ROI is a tough issue, particularly with so many that believe the simple pursuit of higher education is the reward itself.  College graduation rates are a tough issue, particularly when we so struggle nationally with our ability to improve high school graduation and college-going rates, particularly with historically disadvantaged students.
But the current times call for bold moves.  There is no question that postsecondary education is quickly becoming a non-negotiable for economic success in the 21st century.  We also know that employers value the degree, and not simply the attendance record, when it comes to evaluating a potential job candidate’s educational background.  If we view state investment in higher education as an investment in strengthening the state’s economy and the state’s future, such linkages between funding and completion make sense.  Taxpayers are subsidizing these education experiences.  They have a right to demand some return on that investment.  And we all should have the expectation that when our sibling or child or spouse enrolls in postsecondary education (be it a two- or four-year institution) the ultimate goal is securing a diploma.  That’s the goal.  We should measure against it.

290 thoughts on “Changing the Game on College Funding

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