Accountability, Quality, Return on Investment

Outcomes Based Funding Metrics

This morning I read with interest a report from The Education Trust, entitled Re-Imagining Outcomes Based Funding. I was following up on Emma Whitford’s piece in Inside Higher Ed that focused on outcomes based funding (OBF) as a tool for supporting equity. I must admit, I shuddered as I considered the hundred ways outcomes funding goes wrong, but Whitford and the report helped me to think about things in new ways. Chief among those ways was that this approach actually supports a focus on who campuses admit, not just retention and graduation rates, and suggests that funding should take that into account. It seems we are getting somewhere on raising awareness about the bluntness of those measures. Hooray.

As I read through the metrics suggested, I saw some thoughtful connections between the students enrolled and the ways that our legislators might think about funding. Instead of just looking at retention and graduation rates, this approach prioritizes investing in campuses that serve more diverse student bodies. It also brings in an important new variable for OBF–campus climate.

Campus climate is often an invisible component in the retention and graduation rates of a university. We spend a lot of time looking at ways to support under-prepared students and we seek out opportunities for scholarships for our under-funded students and these are really important things to do. But, for first generation students and students of color these efforts are not sufficient. They must feel welcome.

So how do we do that? Well, campus climate surveys are one way. Interestingly enough, they are not inexpensive to administer, and they are even more expensive to use. It isn’t enough to gather the data; we need qualified personnel to analyze that same data and help the campus community find opportunities to improve. The funding for this work has to be new dollars. If it isn’t, it will get cut from the budget as soon as we have to prioritize our efforts. We will always focus on direct student support over the broader climate every time. So, I’m glad this idea was raised in the report, but there are important financial implications to consider.

Then there was another piece in the report that gave me pause. In the section called “Ten Steps for Design” (of outcomes based funding models), the following was step five:

“Discourage institutions from reducing access to high-quality degrees or credentials for students from low income backgrounds and students of color.”

This statement is a response to the negative consequences OBF as it has been implemented in the past. In short, the easiest way to improve retention and graduation rates is to change your admissions standards. Better prepared students do better than those on the margins. Better funded students do better than those who struggle to pay for their education. First-generation college students manage more uncertainty than their second or third generation peers and may be retained at somewhat lower levels. All of these students are likely to take longer than four years to graduate. Yes, the older model incentivized a less-inclusive campus. The new suggested strategies are a marked improvement.

At WCSU about 35% of our student body are the first in their families to go to college. We are a relatively affordable school and find that this is attractive to lots of Pell-Eligible students. We are also an increasingly diverse community, something we view as entirely positive, but our history is less so and we are still learning about our invisible barriers and biases, as we seek to be an inclusive campus. Most of what we do fits well into this Re-imagined OBE Funding Framework with its focus on equity. In theory, we should benefit from greater support for our campus based on this model.

But I must admit I do worry about additional unintended consequences if timelines for effectiveness are not robust enough and if there is not continuous dialog with our state representatives about how they read our metrics. For example:

  1. Even when recruiting and admission standards are comparable, a majority residential campus will do better on retention and graduation measures than a majority commuter campus. It is simply easier to help a student who is struggling when they have a regular presence in the campus community.
  2. Sufficient funding to create comparable experiences for our needier students is also an important consideration. Opportunities for internships, research experiences, or study abroad may require a cash infusion or higher need students will skip them for more work hours. They simply need the funds. Unfortunately, these are the same high impact educational experiences that inspire degree completion, applications to graduate schools, and broaden career opportunities. Without that funding stream, schools who serve the less wealthy are likely to have outcomes measures that look weaker than their better funded peers.
  3. Finally, timelines for evaluation are critical. Improvement of anything cannot really be seen in under six years in higher education. While degrees are imagined in four year increments, the students who need more support tend to take five to six years. The effectiveness of an intervention on retention could show up quickly, but its sustained impact will take time. All other interventions will be better seen over the course of a degree. But six years is also a minimum, because you will only be measuring a first cohort at that mark. Sustained improvement is better captured in 8-10 year cycles.

These nuances are hard to convey when elections are in 2- and 4-year cycles. No matter how invested elected officials are in education, there is opportunity for too narrow a view. So, I remain skeptical about the ability to create an outcomes based funding model that can truly support great education that is equitable. But I am very excited to see equity put at the center of the question. That is a great leap forward.