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Performance Funding: No College Student Left Behind?

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Recently Teresa Lubbers, Indiana's Higher Education Commissioner announced that colleges and universities should expect more funding to be tied to performance. Colleges and universities will need to increase the number of students who graduate with degrees on time to be rewarded with public money.

Performance funding, far from being the shocking new approach Governor Daniels suggested it was in his speech to Indiana's first Trustees Academy on August 30, 2010, has been around for many years. Its use has always been defended as a way of holding institutions accountable. By 2002, thirty-six states had links between public funding of higher education and performance. However, by 2003, the numbers began to decrease. Much research has been done on the success of performance funding, and little has shown it to be ultimately effective -- partly because it is often associated with politicians who then leave office so that the practice is not given enough time to fully be evaluated and partly because indicators used to determine "good" performance are vague or inappropriate to all colleges and universities.

This is of particular importance to community colleges, where so many students take many years to complete "two year degrees" or leave college without degrees at all. There are multiple reasons this happens: students come in needing remediation which means they might not technically even begin their degrees until their second years; students do not know if they want to be in school and choose a community college as a less expensive way to test the waters; and, most importantly, many students have full time lives outside of college -- families, jobs, and other responsibilities -- which means that their studies cannot always take priority. Will a single mother with a full time job who takes five years to complete her associates degree be seen as a failure and lead to less funding for her college? What does that say to the student? And what changes might that lead to at the institution?

I see real similarities between performance funding for higher education and the problems of the No Child Left Behind Act, which many educators agree has had some detrimental consequences to the success of American schools. With the focus being laid on the "success" of students (with regards to test scores in schools and timely graduation rates in colleges and universities), the actual learning that takes place gets moved to the back burner. There have been accusations that schools have neglected both very high and very low achieving students to concentrate on those in the middle whose test scores may make the difference to the school's overall rating. If states are going to reward colleges who graduate students in a timely manner, will higher ed have to make similar choices? Will community colleges be forced to shut their "open door" admissions to those students who may take "too long" to graduate? Performance funding places the entire responsibility for graduation on the institution, without acknowledging that students' abilities, attitudes, and schedules also play a role. Because of this omission, the goal of wanting students to graduate may be reinterpreted as wanting students who will graduate. This may leave behind an already undereducated population, which has suffered so greatly economically.

Increasing graduation rates should be of importance to higher education institutions; they should be held accountable, especially given their ever-increasing price tags. American education on all levels is in crisis. Rather than threats, a shift in attitude towards education -- its purpose and its contribution to our society -- on all stakeholders' parts is what's needed.