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.

Affordability, equity, Inclusion, Quality, Regional Comprehensive, Return on Investment

COVID-19 & the Neighborhood University

Like all campuses grappling with re-opening in the fall, WCSU will triage the questions of lab sciences, clinical placements, online learning vs. hybrid learning, and the biggest question of all – do we reopen our dorms.  As usual, the press is obsessed with a model of higher education that looks like the movies – a beautiful location on a hillside, usually pictured in brightly colored autumnal hues, with all residential students.  In reality, that model serves a small percentage of undergraduates. Campuses like mine, with predominantly local student populations, are built to serve the majority, rather than the lucky few, and we have designed our curriculum and services accordingly.  In this crisis the strength of the accessible, affordable, local university comes into full view.

Let’s start with the obvious – for students and families stretching resources to attend college, not paying for living on campus is a substantial savings.  In the case of public universities, that decision will reduce the cost of education by about half. That means less debt and/or the ability to support more than one child in college.  For those with the greatest need, it means Pell might come close to covering expenses (not quite, but close).  For those who are more solidly middle class, it means the family can get a return on their tax investment in public higher education and allow their students to graduate with little to no debt. As we discover the true economic impact of this crisis, the affordable option is the best bet. We will be here for our traditional students. We will also be here for the folks who suddenly need to retool for a new career.

Then there is the value of the education itself.  Like most public comprehensive universities, WCSU offers a wide range of majors, enrichment opportunities, an honors program and educational access programs, and our resources have been invested in our educational facilities, not lazy rivers. Most of our graduates earn degrees and stay in Connecticut, working in various fields and frequently sending their children to us as well. Some of them come in with a need for academic support, so we provide it.  Others hit the ground running and go on for advanced degrees at prestigious universities (frequently with full-funding) and we have Fulbright Scholarship winners every few years. Sometimes the same ones who started out struggling end up in graduate programs. Our students have access to faculty producing research that is connected to our community and research that addresses large scale societal questions in all fields. Last year we had a Goldwater winner.  She’s heading off to John’s Hopkins next fall for a Ph.D., in no small part because of the research opportunities she had at WCSU.

These achievements occur because we are focused on supporting the needs of all of our students, not just the most talented. Whether an honors student or a student who needs academic support, education at WCSU is not organized to weed out the weaker students, but to support every student. We have to do this, not just because we think it is right, but because our neighbors are watching, and they talk.  To put it plainly, when a student flunks out of Yale, the public blames the student.  When a student flunks out of WCSU, the public blames us. We must always focus on the long-term relationship with our community and the success of the students they send to us.  If we do not, we will not survive.

All of this has always been true, of course, but what about the current moment makes it so important? Uncertainty about the fall and even spring next year makes it very likely that there will be some disruptions in the operations of traditional campuses.  As we track the spread of COVID-19, we are preparing to deliver our curriculum in online, hybrid, and on ground formats. We want to be sure that whatever happens, students will have a good educational experience.  This strategy will allow us to focus on the most important face-to-face experiences, and we will do our best to make those things happen in the fall.   But if the state and public health concerns determine that we cannot be here in person, education will continue online, and students will have faculty who will get to know them well.

At WCSU, we do not see online learning as a place to skimp on our student-centeredness or as something to contract out to other faculty.  We leveled up our online academic supports right away this spring and we will extend those throughout the next academic year.  That happened quickly because being student focused is the only way we can succeed as a university.  Most of our online classes are small, so faculty can give real feedback.  This is because we have always understood that our students have varied needs that require attention, so large classes are not a good strategy. We are now figuring out how to continue our research opportunities with limited face-to-face contact, and we are imagining ways to create enriched experiences for those most unlikely of online disciplines – performing arts. Why, because we have always experimented with new pedagogies as the expectations of students have changed over time. We are rising to the COVID-19 challenge with the most important thing in view–great educational experiences for all students.

This accessible, affordable, public university has always been focused on student success, precisely because we are accessible and local. We live and die by what our community thinks of us and we want them to trust us with their students. When I finally get to go out and see my neighbors, I do not want to hear that students are at home teaching themselves.  I want to hear about the excellent support their student received in this brand new learning environment or the cool things their faculty tried out in their online course. That is how things work when you are the local option and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

 

 

 

Higher Education, Quality, Regional Comprehensive, Return on Investment

Being a Community Asset

In the past decade or so, many higher education institutions have worked hard to raise their profile. Savvy enrollment directors and presidents had their eyes on the coming demographic shifts, and they worked hard to establish reputations beyond their traditional recruiting area. They knew there were not going to be enough students in that region to sustain them. Some invested in new programs, others rushed to specialized accreditations, and still others celebrated winning athletic contests that brought them national recognition.  It was an exhilarating race.

All of these seemed like sane strategies, and there have been some big winners.  But the field is crowded, and not all of us have the resources to found a medical school or compete in division one sports. For those of us designed to serve a broad range of students while working with more limited funds, this quest for national brand identity was and is out of reach.  To put it simply, being recognized costs money. When choosing to invest our resources, schools like mine tend to focus on direct student services, rather than reputation.  It may seem shortsighted to some, but when faced with the day-to-day realities of our student’s needs, direct services win every time.

But, here we are.  The demographic shifts are upon us, the big winners in the branding arena have been determined, and we are not among them.  We don’t have national recognition, and as we work hard to maintain reasonable enrollments, we are facing difficult decisions about the allocation of our resources. As we make those decisions, it might be a good time to focus on the value we bring to our local community.

WCSU is a wonderful option for so many people. We have a diverse array of programs, highly qualified faculty, interesting research opportunities, and some very nice buildings.  Many of our students go on the impressive things, like law school, medical school, and other interesting graduate programs.  Others win prestigious scholarships like Fulbright’s and Goldwater’s, or full-funding for graduate degrees in math or economics.  However, the vast majority earn their degrees from us, secure employment in the region, and get on with living productive lives. I am very proud of every one of these accomplishments.

Having lived in this region for over twenty-five years, it is impossible for me not to see our impact. Everywhere I go, I run into our graduates.  They are running small businesses, inventing new things, and working for global firms.  They are in our healthcare agencies, our schools, our police forces, and running social programs. They are volunteers, elected officials, and proud parents. They are my friends and neighbors.

Just last week, I was out to dinner, listening to some friends play music, when I ended up in a conversation with another musician who earned his business degree from us and is now working for an international accounting firm.  His wife earned a degree in social work from WCSU as well. Both are having wonderful lives, working in their fields, and raising their children in CT. Their parents also attended WCSU and if they send their children to college with us, they will be third generation WCSU graduates. That is some kind of endorsement of our offerings, don’t you think?

These kinds of conversations are a common experience for me. I hear of great outcomes in grocery stores, at concerts, and local fairs.  I am occasionally called upon to give advice to families whose children may be struggling.  I have helped friends of friends guide their children back to college, after the study-away experience didn’t work out. Sometimes, I find myself explaining our policies on park benches or at the beach. It is actually an honor.  I am happy to be that resource for so many members of my community.

Reflecting on these experiences, I realize just what a privilege it is to be a good, regional comprehensive university.  Instead of focusing on being a national brand, we’re focused on doing quality education.  Our offerings are typical of our kind of school and they are, in fact, pathways to productive lives. From the generalist degrees that serve as great foundations for careers in many fields, to the more direct career focused programs that prepare students to be nurses or social workers, we provide opportunities for all students to thrive. When appropriate, we add new majors that meet emerging demands (cybersecurity and addiction studies come to mind), and that is important, but mostly, we offer quality education that sets our graduates up for success.

I guess what I am saying is this–as the number of students in our region drop, I still want to be that great option for my friends and neighbors.  I don’t want to chase a trend or invest resources in the ratings race or hire a consultant to tell us what we already know about who we are. Instead, I want to invest in the things that support this environment, so that we can continue to be the community asset that we have always been.

This makes us a little vulnerable. We have to figure out how to manage our resources while we wait for a new generation of learners to be ready for college. It is a real challenge to budget for status quo, rather than growth.  But, I think we are on the right track if we keep quality education as our focus, rather than shiny objects.   It may not be glamourous, but it is sure does change lives.

 

Community, Return on Investment

Valuing Community

Well, it is Labor Day and here in the northeastern United States we are taking those end of summer walks, paddles, and swims. It is a celebratory holiday, with the hint of melancholy that endings always bring.  For me, it is always a happy time as we start the new school year and enter the season of apples, cinnamon, and changing leaves.

The hint of the crisp weather to come was in the air last week, and I was prompted to get out my bicycle to take a ride on a nearby rail trail. Rail trails have been an ever-present part of my adult life. When my children were young, my husband and I would pack them up, first in bike seats on our bicycles, then on little bikes of their own, and eventually, setting them free on proper bikes, training wheels gone, and streamers flying. The rail trails offered our family a safe, car-free space for our adventures.

Yesterday, my husband and I rode the Dutchess County Rail Trail from Hopewell Junction to the Walkway Over the Hudson.  It’s a lovely ride, but that is not my point.  What was great about the trail, which I have watched emerge over the last 20 years, is the community values it represents. Like all parks and trails, it required local time and money, community investment and labor, an occasional grant, and a vision of the positive impact it would have on Dutchess County.  People joined together to make something that would improve the quality of life for those around. This, is a wonderful impulse.

The Walkway Over the Hudson (an old railroad bridge, now a pedestrian and cycling route) offers spectacular views of the Hudson River and has become a destination all by itself.  From a derelict and scary structure to this vibrant park, some intrepid folks had enough imagination to move it forward.  Not only is the resulting structure beautiful and generally packed with people during the warmer months, but on either side, small businesses have popped up.  This investment has surely resulted in some monetary returns as it draws tourists to experience the views.

But the rest of it, the winding trail, with bridges over highways, and parking spots for shorter and longer loops, brought something more than a monetary reward… it brought an improved quality of life. As we pedaled along yesterday we passed people of all ages–newborns in backpacks, small children with training wheels, dog walkers on roller blades, people in wheel chairs, and senior citizens taking a slow stroll.  On this rail trail I passed people of many colors and sizes and I believe I heard at least six different languages spoken.  This wonderfully democratic experience, with no admission fees, brings cultures together in the most positive ways.

Now I could talk about property values (probably improved by this investment) or the other potential business that may result, or the actual health benefits of trails and parks as they encourage people to get up and move about, but I am most impressed by they way these things represent our commitment to community.  Time spent and funds raised on building these come from people who see the value of the experiences the trails will provide without seeking a financial payoff.  Families and neighbors then volunteer to help with the upkeep, representing a continued commitment to making the world a nicer place.  When we do these things, we all demonstrate care for our friends and neighbors and even those visitors from far and wide, dreaming of that common good for all.

So, it’s Labor Day, the perfect day to think about commitment to the common good. The work of labor unions in creating a reasonable standard of living for all is a clear representation of that commitment. People came together for the betterment of the whole, rather than advocating for the one.  That work improved working standards and created better living conditions for the many.  Our willingness to invest in transportation, healthcare, and education also represent that commitment.  These things are a bet on the idea that we all have better lives when everyone has access to these essential things.

And parks of all kinds are really just that….a bet that we all have better lives when everyone can share in the beauty of the outdoors in a safe and accessible way.  This seems like an excellent way to spend Labor Day.  That, and a picnic of course.

Enjoy the holiday.

 

equity, Free Speech, Return on Investment

Surveys, Social Class, and Policy

In both Inside Higher EducationThe Public Support for (and Doubts About) Higher Education” and The Chronicle of Higher Education’s trend report “It’s a New Assault on the University” the results of large scale survey research tell a story of what are best described as mixed reviews of higher education.  In the Chronicle story, the emphasis is on how politicized the narratives about higher education have become, particularly around free speech.  In Inside Higher Education, the emphasis seems to be more on costs and return on investment. (I’ve simplified, so read them yourself for the full details).  Together, they reveal the problem of describing higher education as one thing, when it has become (and, perhaps has long been) many things.

This is what I mean. Much of the reporting on higher education focuses on a narrow, elite tier of schools.  In those environments, costs are very high, acceptance rates are low (read exclusive), and fights around free speech and safe spaces appear to be common.  These institutions are where we see “culture wars” dramatized (whether they are real or not is another thing).  If the people being polled about higher education are concerned that our campuses have a political bias, it is unsurprising, because that is what is being covered in the press.

Very little reporting focuses on regional public universities.  If attention is paid to us (and it rarely is), the focus is either on a Title IX scandal or, in some rare cases, on our outcomes.  Cost comes up, to be sure, and it should because state funding levels are shrinking, thus driving our tuition prices up. This does make families who choose us wonder about whether or not we are worth it.  But what we do and how we fit into higher education as a whole is rarely discussed in the media coverage of education.

For two year colleges, the focus is on jobs.  There are stories about re-tooling the labor force, focusing on high demand fields, like advanced manufacturing, and keeping tuition down for access. The free college movement, is largely focused on this part of the higher education matrix.  This part of the ecology of higher education is easily identified with social mobility and economic advantages, because there are direct job prospects for much of what is offered.  Any negative press would be around false promises for certificates, but this rarely happens at the public two year colleges.

There are more gradations, more distinctions between types of higher education, but you get the idea. Surveys that ask about higher education in general, that do not differentiate these layers of educational institutions yield complex and sometimes confusing results, that really don’t apply to all types. There is so much to unpack here, but I’d like to offer a perspective on all of this that rarely get’s discussed: What we have here is a social class problem.

We want to talk about higher education as one thing, because we don’t want to acknowledge the ways in which it replicates our social class structures. This is America, we don’t believe in social class. We believe in opportunity, and yes, education is the foundation of much of that opportunity. Higher education can be access to a better life (and the surveys do reveal that people still believe that, with caveats), but it also reinforces our social stratification.

So, let’s talk about jobs.  There are no students going to college who are not hoping to connect their educations to future careers.  At elite schools, the path to those careers are not necessarily linked to a particular major (although in many cases it is – pre-med, education, accounting, engineering, etc.), but more in the many experiences that students will have prior to and during their education.  They will have time for internships, they will be mentored by alumni, they will build interesting resumes by studying abroad or volunteering, and most of all, they will hang around with people who know the diversity of experiences that might be available after graduation, helping to shed light on those mysterious questions like “What does a project manager do?”

At community colleges, while some programs are designed for transfer to four year schools (reducing the cost of education for those students), many of the degrees are very direct job training.  Radiology technicians, network or help desk support, veterinary technicians, advanced manufacturing all come to mind.  In these schools, we are providing a great opportunity to improve economic security for students, and, when they are funded appropriately (read low or no cost to students) they embody the social mobility we have built our economic and cultural mythologies around.

At regional public universities like mine, our students also want to see the connections between their education and careers, but we offer the same blend of educational opportunities that the elite schools offer, but with fewer naturally occurring opportunities to network. So, we build career centers to try to bridge the gap between one-to-one degree to career connections, and the broader liberal arts experiences that we and the elite schools so value.

So when I ask a question about whether or not higher education is doing enough to prepare students for jobs, I’ve asked a really big and complicated question.  If we don’t tease out the difference between our missions and the ways in which we understand the very notion of job/career preparation, the answers will just be simplistic responses that play well in the press, but don’t help us figure out how to understand this issue in our colleges and universities. We then end up with simplistic measurements of our ability to provide a good “return on investment” in things like college score cards and policy proposals that are irrelevant to most higher education institutions.

But we do need good policies.  We do need to stop predatory practices that promise great outcomes while encouraging ridiculous amounts of debt.  We do need to attend how we fund higher education so that it can provide opportunities to achieve greater economic stability.  We do need to articulate how investing in higher education benefits our graduates in more concrete ways than we used to do, not just because of cost, but because our students want to know.  We do need to protect all campuses from undue political influence, but we also need to be honest about how pervasive those issues really are (or rather how limited those issues really are).

In other words, it’s complicated. We are not all one thing.  We serve different audiences and together we are complex higher education ecosystem. Let’s get honest about our differences and more specific in our surveys, so that our policies can be more effective and discussions of higher education can be more representative of the diversity of who we really are.