A recent paper published by New Haven-based think tank, the Connecticut Policy Institute, calls for sweeping changes to how the state funds higher education.
Written by Yale graduate student and CPI Research Fellow Dennis Zeveloff, the policy paper claims that “state spending could be significantly better organized and more outcomes-focused” while recommending the state split its current block grant system into a “core funding payment” and a “performance payment.”
In the report, Zeveloff’s pointed to problems with the current funding system, which gives “block grants” to the state’s public post-secondary institutions to spend any way the school wants. Zeveloff wrote this “creates unnecessary divides between public schools, tolerates middling graduation rates and rising debt-loads for students, and ignores data.”
In a phone interview last week, Zeveloff said the block grant system was opaque and there was a “lack of funding clarity.” When he began his research, Zeveloff said, Connecticut was one of only a few states that had not yet “considered basing funding on outcomes over enrollment.”
In his plan, Zeveloff proposes allocating 80 percent of the funds based upon a “weighted student credit hour.” Zeveloff says he is borrowing this idea from a former provost of Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, Michael Gargano. Under the plan, a junior or senior level course would be weighted more than a freshman or sophomore course, but not as much as a graduate-level course, while more expensive programs like engineering or nursing would be weighted more than an introductory writing program. Additionally, corresponding courses — for example nursing at the University of Connecticut and Central Connecticut State University — would be weighted equally in order to “normalize” the funding between UConn and the state universities.
The remaining 20 percent would come as “performance funding” and incentivize student progress, which would be measured by the number of degrees or certificates achieved by the students.
The question of how to spend about $682.5 million annually on higher education is on the mind of state lawmakers in Hartford who in June passed an act establishing the Task Force Concerning Outcomes-Based Financing. The task force began meeting in September and is working on its own recommendations to the General Assembly, which will reconvene in February 2016.
The task force involves a range of stakeholders including the University of Connecticut, some of the four state universities, community colleges, and private institutions. According to Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Lakeville, the co-chair of the task force, this diversity of stakeholders represents Connecticut’s unique situation where around half the state’s graduates will receive degrees from private institutions.
While Zeveloff names states like Tennessee and Nevada as examples of systems that Connecticut could follow, Willis said, “It is hard to compare Connecticut to other states.” Citing factors like Connecticut’s strong public sector unions and the fact that around half of the state’s degree recipients come from private institutions, Willis says, “It’s like apples and oranges.”
The implementation of outcomes- or performance-based funding has been the subject of debate across the country for decades. Between 1979 and 2007, a number of states instituted performance-based funding centered on degree completion, but these were abandoned due to significant flaws. More recently however, a revamped strategy looking to focus on progress rather than completion has come into vogue taking on the name “performance-based funding 2.0” or, it seems, “outcomes-based funding.”
A 2012 report from the Center for American Progress looking at the best practices of “performance-funding 2.0” echoes some of Zeveloff’s points. “Enrollment . . . is a poor predictor of overall institutional performance. Ongoing budget cuts, combined with stagnating graduation rates and a rising national demand for highly educated workers, make it increasingly important for states to invest in completion too,” it states before concluding that “Performance-based funding is a necessary step toward aligning the objectives of state and institutional leaders, while ensuring that states are investing their limited funds wisely and productively.”
Yet a 2014 study from Columbia University says it found several “unintended consequences” following the institution of “performance-based funding 2.0” programs including the heightening admissions standards at the exclusion of low-income students, “weakened academic standards (i.e. grade inflation), lack of cooperation between state institutions that now viewed each other as competitors, unexpected costs of compliance, and lowered staff and faculty morale.”
Shortly after his paper was published by Connecticut Policy Institute, which was founded by two-time Republican gubernatorial candidate, Tom Foley, Zeveloff spoke with Willis and said over the phone that he was pleased with the task force’s progress. “They’re talking to a lot of the same people,” he said.
“We recognize that the common goal is student success,” Willis said, adding that “funding should follow that goal.” Willis agreed with Zeveloff that, until recently, “There hasn’t been a flight plan. We’ve been flying blind. We need to be strategic about how we fund higher education.”
While state governments and think tanks debate the usefulness of varied funding programs, tuitions and student debt are both increasing. The average debt for Connecticut college students has risen 57 percent over the past decade from $18,906 in 2004 to $29,750 in 2014, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.
In an attempt to combat this rise, the Obama administration released the College Scorecard, in September. According to The Atlantic , the scorecard “gives users access to extensive federal data on the student-debt and attendance-cost data for more than 7,000 U.S. higher-ed institutions allowing them to compare institution.”