Category Archives: Success-based funding

The risks of admitting at-risk students

Many of us teach at schools that admit disadvantaged students. It’s good that the state wants to reach out to those students. However, new funding formulas in Texas and other states allocate money based partially on “performance based” criteria or student “success.” That means schools will have more incentive to turn away as many disadvantaged student  since studies show they are less likely to graduate in six years (“Incoming student characteristics determine graduation rates, studies find“).

Session update on higher education

It has become hard for me to decide whether I’m more afraid of the Texas Legislature or the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). It’s a bad sign when a bureaucratic agency becomes as politicized and erratic as our legislature. However, those of us who have witnessed the incomprehensible and pointless process known as “assessment” have begun to look to our legislature for respite.

The regular session has wrapped up and the Austin-American Statesman has provided a end-of-session review (“Session featured drama, substance on higher education.”

  • Too much of the session was taken up by the ongoing obsession with the University of Texas. Perry’s appointees spend too much time trying to micro-manage UT and the Legislature spends too much time reining them in. The state’s leaders continue act as if UT and Texas A&M are the most important battleground for higher education policy and don’t seem to realize how dramatically different other campuses are.
  • In some good news, the “Texas Grants” program was increased. This will help more students afford college.
  • Governor Perry saw passage of his proposal to create “fixed-rate” tuition plans that mean students can count on tuition remaining steady over their four years of college. Of course, this means the schools will want to build in future costs increases as they consider what to offer incoming freshman. This becomes especially exciting because schools have learned that they can’t count on steady funding from the state.
  • “Outcome-based” funding was imposed on two-year schools. This makes a school’s funding formula based partially on how many students complete a semester (rather than how many begin the semester). Increasingly, “accountability” does not always apply to students. Everyone I know who has faced a room full of students knows how naive this his. However, their form of educational socialism that is much en vogue with some of Perry’s advisors. Expect them to continue to continue to push rules that make schools responsible for student success. Exactly how you pass those students who don’t show up and do the work will probably be left to the individual instructor.
  • Tuition bonds that would have funded new facilities perished in some kind of silly spat between the House and Senate. There are proposals to add this to the “call” of the current special session. Unfortunately, this is in the hands of the Governor and he has shown no interest so far. These project could get pushed back a couple of years when both construction costs and the costs of borrowing money increase.
  • The hottest issue (and, in my opinion, an issue important largely for its symbolic value) was “campus-carry.” This would have allowed individuals with permits to carry concealed weapons into campus buildings. The Legislature did pass a bill that allowed people to keep such weapons in their vehicle when the park on campus. However, the right to carry them into buildings was not passed.

I don’t believe that most of the individuals in the coordinating board or our legislature intend to inflict hard on education in the state. However, collective irrationality can emerge from both bureaucratic and legislative organizations. The THECB currently holds the edge in regard. Expect to see campuses hiring more administrators doing nothing but respond to demands for reports that the people in Austin will not read. However, the massive flow of paperwork will allow our state’s leaders to crow about “accountability” (even as we cancel office hours to attend meetings to generate these reports).

Outcomes-based funding fizzles

According to the Dallas Morning News (“Higher university outcomes-based funding level reaches end of the line in House“), “outcome-based” funding appears to be dead for this session. Governor Perry and others have backed  linking state funding to the number of students completing courses (rather than initial enrollment). The idea is to give universities incentives for student success.

Apparently, members of the legislature understand that universities already care about student success–sometimes more than the students.

Calvin says it all


I think this Calvin and Hobbs strip effectively summarizes the anxieties that professors and public school teachers have about seeing their salaries tied to standardized test scores or student course evaluations.

Still Feeling that Higher Ed Anxiety

Faculty members have more reasons that ever to feel that higher ed anxiety. Getting students to read is harder than ever. Respect for faculty and education is dropping. Online course offer both new opportunities to reach students and new problems about who is on the other end and exactly what they’re learning. More of the university is being transformed in a bureaucracy serving rituals of assessments driven by political credit claiming.

The political dynamics surrounding higher education in Texas is making its own contribution. Frank Bruni, in a Op-Ed piece in the New York Times (“Questioning the Mission of College‘). Sums it up pretty well:

“I’d sound yet another alarm. Scratch the surface of some of the efforts to reform state universities and you find more than just legitimate qualms about efficiency and demands for accountability. You find the kind of indiscriminate anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism popular among more than a few right-wing conservatives…

In other words there’s some crude, petty politics in all of this. And as we tackle the very real, very important challenge of giving young Americans the best and most useful education possible in an era of dwindling resources, that’s the last thing we need.”

My biggest worry today is not that another generation of students will come along and present new challenges. My fear is that the state will strip us of the resources we need to meet those challenges and that the politicians of the state will be working against us. Getting students to read and explore new ideas will be even harder when their  lack of respect for education finds comfort in the political rhetoric of the state’s leaders. Our state leaders  ask only for superficial measures of success (lower tuition bills, higher diploma counts) without asking whether or not graduate or employers are better served. The irony is that while these politicians want to invest only in diplomas and job-related skills, they have no idea what jobs or skills will actually be needed in the future.

Young Texans get the wrong messages from the state: “Don’t learn the subjects in K-12, just passed the standardized tests. Don’t embrace the broad-based education offered by your college, just get the diploma as cheaply as possible. If you fail, the responsibility rests with the school.”

Some employers are already suffering through the consequences  and pushing back. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait for the private sector to unite and lead the rebellion against the decline in learning. The anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism built into the current political regime guarantees that teachers and professors will be the last people to be given a voice in education policy.

Linking higher ed funds to graduation rate

Legislators are heading some resistance to the plans to link higher education funding to graduation rates (Struggle to tie higher ed funds to graduation rate“). This is a very popular idea pushing students through K-12 regardless of whether or not they learned turned out to be such a huge success.

Apparently, legislators think we don’t care about student success and need financial incentives.


Whomever should we blame?

I spend a lot of time traveling and I see a lot of families on vacation and can not help but notice some of  the kids running around. They miss the elevator because they get distracted. They can’t figure out the juice dispenser in the breakfast room. There were kids who could not stay focused on even the shortest presentation at the Alamo. The Zits comic strip is popular with parents (like myself) for a reason.

Zits cartoon strip

Try to understand: The kid that you struggle to manage come into classrooms… in large numbers. The kid you can’t get to carry out the trash does not want to learn math. Maybe the kids you can’t get to take you seriously doesn’t take that standardized test seriously.

The stakes behind high-stakes testing

We shouldn’t automatically blame students’ inability to learn math on their teachers and should avoid “success-based” funding that puts the blame the universities when students do not graduate on time.

Who is responsible for college grads?

Jeff Selingo has a very interesting blog posting (“Wanted: Better Employees“)  on responsibility for problems with college grads. I was delighted to see someone note that there is plenty of blame to go around.

Seligno quotes one business recruiter who said, “We’re encouraging students to go to college who should be considering other options, and then we’re pushing them through once there.” Those of us who teach in Texas know that’s exactly the pressure we face. Every day some elected official or poorly informed special interest group tells us to graduate more students quickly and cheaply (while spending other days telling high schools that their graduates are not ready for college).

Fixing higher education in Texas will take some thoughtful analysis. The state’s political leaders are too invested in partisanship and dodging responsibility to lead. That means the responsibility for real reform will be on universities.

The performance-based funding trend

Stateline, an online publication that looks at state governments, has a story (“States ask colleges to perform for money“) on the incentives higher ed is facing. It’s just a reminder that the pressure we’re feeling is Texas is part of a nation-wide movement. Oddly enough, Texas is lagging behind many states on developing and implementing performance-based funding.

Debating the “big lie”

In an op-ed piece in the Austin American Statesman, Governor Rick Perry warned Texans about “the big lie” about higher education in Texas. To be fair, you should read it and give the Governor a chance to make his case.

That being said…

Let’s break down the great truths emanating from the governor’s office.

Faculty salaries

It is true that the cost to student of higher education has skyrocketed over the last decade. However, we could begin the indictment of higher education costs by saying: “Since Rick Perry became governor of Texas…”  Is it fair to place all the blame for this on Perry? No. However, every state budget and every appointment to every board of regents at a state institution bears the signature of Rick Perry.

Faculty salaries have not skyrocketed since tuition was deregulated in 2003. According to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, salaries increased about 28%. In that time the American Institute for Economic Research estimates that the cost of living has increased about 20%. Overall, faculty have done well, but they are not the cause of the rapid growth in costs.

Average Faculty Salaries, 2003-2011

It is true that some of the most experienced faculty (usually at the state’s “Tier One” universities) earn six-figure salaries. However, those people not only have the highest degrees offered in their field, they usually teach in the programs that offer the most advanced degrees offered. They are also expected to be at the top of their field in research.

Is six-figures too much for the most senior at the top of their field? Anyone think that schools can compete with private sector employers for less?

In any case, those are not professors sitting in the luxury boxes at baseball game. My colleagues and I are usually in the discounted seating in upper deck.

Why do so many of the reforms implicate faculty? It is simple: Faculty are an easy political target. Professors fit the old “culture war” game that goes back to the 1960s. My salary is about half of Rick Perry’s housing allowance from the state and it get frustrated when he tries to portray people like me as some kind of elites who are out of touch with reality.

Graduation rates

THECB data shows that Texas ranks 17th among states in graduation ratesIt is true that many students will attend a university and not graduate. Specifically, Perry points out that “Four-year graduation rates at Texas institutions of higher education currently average just 28.6 percent.” The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) in its Public Higher Education Almanac highlights a 49.3% graduation rate to make the case that Texas is doing a good job. The graduation rate is 28.6% after four years, 55.9% after six years, and 65.8 percent after ten years. (The THECB also has figures showing that our tuition is below average. So, it is clear that Perry didn’t have time to read all of the report.)

Those are the facts of the matter. For those of you who do not want to read the whole report, here is the  summary of the state’s data right out of page 20 of the THECB’s report (click on it, it will get bigger):

An overview of Texas higher education statistics

The Governor should begin his search for the big truth behind the numbers by asking why asking why more students do not graduate. That is a better question than asking why universities do not graduate more students.

There are many reasons why students do not graduate (or do not graduate “on time”). One problem is that students are working more. And, they are working more to pay for their schooling beyond instruction. University housing and dining is much less spartan than previously. Also, research indicates that students are working more to spend on things beyond their education.

What is especially insulting about the Governor’s approach to this issue is that his arguments imply that university faculty, staff, and administrators do not care about students. If that is not a lie, then it is just plain silliness. I have learned several things from decades of living and working among faculty:

  1. They care (a lot) about education.
  2. Caring about students means holding to our highest expectations to them and not lowering standards.

The THECB and others have pointed out that students are not prepared for college when they leave high school. In fact, Texas students fall in the bottom third of ACT & SAT scores.

The performance of Texas students on ACT and SAT tests

Do the math yourself: The state’s public education bureaucracy and most Texans agree on the fact that many students are not ready for college. Wouldn’t we be suspicious if all those students are graduating?

This leads us to a risk of the Perry education reforms: lack of accountability for students.

Success-based funding

“Success-based” funding (funding schools based on how many students complete a class–not how many attempt the class) is to higher education what social promotion is to public schools. It’s a very clear message that the state is pressuring the schools to pass the students.

So, how do you get more students to succeed in Texas? Tell more students that they succeeded. Everyone gets a ribbon. Eventually, everyone gets a diploma.
Everyone gets a ribbon
It is remarkable to me that this comes from conservatives who had previously favored accountability, responsibility, and discipline.

Who defines success?

We need to look at who will be setting the standard. Perry’s answer: students.

This is an outgrowth of the “customer-based” model of education. This approach has two major flaws:

  1. Student are not the customer. We are preparing students for the workplace and citizenship. This is why so many businesses weighed in against education cuts. Higher education serves the community in general and not just the demands of individual students.
  2. Students are not the best judge of classroom learning. Carrell and  West, in a 2010 article in the Journal of Political Economy, found after studying student performance at the Air Force Academy that more experienced teachers produced more deep learning that aided performance in future classes. That deeper learning was not evident from student evaluations and the authors conclude:
    “… student evaluations reward professors who increase achievement in the contemporaneous course being taught, not those who increase deep learning. Using our various measures of teacher quality to rank-order teachers leads to profoundly different results. Since many U.S. colleges and universities use student evaluations as a measurement of teaching quality for academic promotion and tenure decisions, this finding draws into question the value and accuracy of this practice.”

So, letting students defining success fails on at least two counts.

Research vs. Teaching

Perry uses much of the article to proclaim his deep and abiding love for research. He seems distraught at the notion that faculty are not feeling the love. There are two important points here:

  1. The “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” and other initiatives backed by Perry’s appointees have clearly raised arguments and created measures that target the research done by many faculty members. Yes, Perry has pushed for more Tier One universities in the state and signed legislation funding research. At the same time, his office has been pushing behind the reform package that challenged the place of research in the state’s universities.
  2. It is legitimate to question the value of research and everything else done with taxpayer dollars. The problem is the approach to measuring the value of research is too clumsy and poorly informed to improve the situation. Trying to impose a simplistic cost/benefit formula mandated by a central government is doomed to failure. Further, universities are tasked with taking on the research that private sector shuns because it does not produce an immediate return on the investment. The very nature of university research makes a simple cost/benefit analysis difficult.

The role of research in the university is complicated and measures of quality must be nuanced. Perry’s search for politically expedient metrics does a great injustice to much of the research.

So, Perry’s “truth” does not hold up well. In the process he made himself look small. Tossing around the “big lie” label associated with Hitler was a cheap shot and an unpleasant insight into the kind of rhetoric we can expect from Perry’s staff. I suspect that Perry has been duped by a few large donors and campaign operatives into embracing a set of reforms that he would reject if given the time to focus more seriously on the issue. Unfortunately, Perry is not one to reconsider decisions–especially after he has staked out a position during a campaign.