It’s Not so Easy to Achieve Meaningful Reform

Garrison Walters has written a thoughtful essay about the debate over how to use public levers to improve educational outcomes.

Here is the full article: It’s Not so Easy: The Completion Agenda and the States

He criticizes the Complete College America agenda for its faith in simple performance measures and its reliance on a dollars-as-punishment incentive system.  Here is an important paragraph of his argument:

At the core of CCA’s strategy is a proposed shift to state-level performance funding: “Funding should shift from simply rewarding enrollment to valuing outcomes, such as credentials awarded or classes successfully completed. Funding is a powerful incentive, and rewarding performance allows states to align their fiscal policies with statewide goals for workforce development and economic prosperity.”1 This shift is necessary, CCA asserts, because “state appropriations typically are driven by enrollment with funding based on the number of students enrolled” and “as a result, colleges have a financial incentive to boost enrollment at the start of the term, rather than make sure students successfully complete classes and earn degrees.”2 In this context, “performance” is really a euphemism. The strategy would be more accurately described as “pressure-punitive funding,” because it is designed to force institutions to change and punish them if they do not.

For starters, this approach presumes that that the schools have no mission beyond collecting government subsidy, or that they are so hamstrung by internal constraints and inefficiency that they cannot implement productive changes that outsiders seemingly can see so clearly. Walters dissects both notions.

The problem with most performance based measures is that they can push schools to behave in socially counterproductive ways. Reward schools for graduation rates and you reward already selective programs whose well-qualified matriculants likely will succeed no matter what Selective U does with them. Take money away from schools whose graduation rates are below X percent and you may wind up punishing programs that work with the at-risk students who are often from underrepresented groups. Facing these incentives, many schools may lower the rigor of their programming or admit fewer students who might need some remediation in order to succeed. The Law of Unintended Consequences is always nearby when policy makers construct simple metrics and apply them to complex systems like the extraordinarily diverse array of higher education institutions that operate in the US.

This approach to higher education reform is somewhat akin to the zen of testing and measurement that has so transformed public K-12 education, and not always in particularly desirable ways. The Department of Education has also bought into the idea that easy productivity growth is attainable by setting measurable goals and punishing non-performance. As David Warren, the president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities has tartly observed, there is a difference between the Department of Education and the Ministry of Education.

Walters saves his praise for more nuanced reforms undertaken by states like Maryland with its “Effectiveness and Efficiency Initiative” and Virginia’s “restructured Higher Education Financial and Administrative Operations Act.” These programs are not based on the notion that achieving meaningful productivity growth is as simple as adding more online classes. And they have not treated state universities as though they are homogeneous entities ready to embrace one-size-fits-all incentives.