Gazette opinion: State should measure success in higher ed

2013-03-10T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: State should measure success in higher ed The Billings Gazette
March 10, 2013 12:10 am

There’s something new in the Montana University System’s proposed budget appropriation for the upcoming biennium: An agreement that part of the funding will depend on performance.

This step toward greater public accountability is intrinsically linked to college affordability. Universities and colleges are supposed to deliver educational services that lead to completion of a degree or certificate. When students graduate -- and graduate on time -- they derive the highest value for their investment. Likewise, Montana taxpayers, who fund about 36 percent of the system’s educational expenses, get the biggest bang for their bucks when students become graduates. (The other 64 percent of educational costs for Montana residents in the Montana University System is covered by tuition.)

On Feb. 1, Gov. Steve Bullock Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian signed a memorandum of understanding in which they agreed that the university system would freeze tuition for Montana residents for the next two academic years if the Legislature adopts the system’s funding request of $164 million per year.

On Feb. 6, Bullock and Christian signed an addendum that says a portion of funding for the 2015 biennium “will be designated for performance funding and distributed based on progress made toward increasing college completions and other related outcomes aimed at accelerating time to degree.”

That addendum also was signed by all members of the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education: Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady; Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad; Rep. Nancy Balance, R-Hamilton; Sen. Taylor Brown, R-Billings; Sen. Brad Hamlett, D-Cascade; Rep. Don Jones, R-Billings; Rep. Bob Mehlhoff, D-Great Falls; Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder; and Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman. Brown and Llew Jones led the legislative effort to include accountability measures in the university funding plan.

The majority of the subcommittee subsequently approved an appropriation that would support the two-year tuition freeze. That recommendation is now being considered by the full House Appropriations Committee before the entire state budget goes to the House floor and then on to the Senate.

“I’ve heard about accountability from both sides of the aisle and the governor’s office the past eight years and this governor,” Christian said at last week’s Regents meeting.

The MUS will hold discussions about performance standards next month in Bozeman and Missoula. That will just be the start of a process that will involve faculty and an independent, outside consultant.

“We will use nationally recognized best practices,” said Tyler Trevor, associate commissioner for planning and analysis.

Incentive approach

“I don’t consider it a penalty approach,” said Regent Todd Buchanan of Billings, who has long advocated for performance measures. “It’s an incentive approach.”

In his State of the State speech, Bullock set a goal of increasing the percentage of Montanans who have completed a college degree from 40 percent to 60 percent.

That goal is consistent with the skilled workforce Montana needs to be competitive in the global economy.

Performance-based funding has been part of the MUS strategic plan for several years. The Regents’ “Success Agenda,” includes these points:

  • Associate achievements in key performance areas with aspects of funding.
  • Define, measure and reward success by institution.

Once performance funding standards are established, about $7.5 million of the system’s budget for 2015-2016 will be distributed according to how well system units achieve those standards, Trevor said. Successful units will share in the performance funds; failing units won’t.

Freshman retention

The MUS has already been tracking some key success measures. For example, data is collected on retention of full-time freshmen returning for a second year of enrollment in the system. During a five-year period from Fall 2007 to Fall 2011, the system recorded slight improvement in freshman retention. However, the percentage of freshman from a particular unit returning to the system or to that institution varied significantly. With retention averaging 76 percent for four-year universities and 54 percent to 61 percent for colleges of technology, there’s substantial room for improvement.

We call on all Montana lawmakers to approve an appropriation that will support the important steps toward college affordability and accountability incorporated in the subcommittee’s budget recommendation. The Legislature should fund and require measurable success in higher education.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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