Scott Walker’s Latest Agenda for Wisconsin Higher Education

November 19, 2012 | Blog

With a headline like that, I bet you’re assuming this is going to be one scathing post! The last time Scott Walker had ideas for Wisconsin public higher education, they involved separating UW-Madison from the rest of System. Or at least, so Biddy Martin told us.

This time, the issue is performance funding for higher education. Walker recently declared his interest in the model, and many people are naturally on the defensive. The common list of concerns is already being circulated (e.g. it will fail to distinguish between institutions with different missions and student bodies, intrude on institutional autonomy, and excuse cuts in regular state funding of higher education), but this is my favorite: Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, a Democrat, said that Walker’s plan sounds like “social engineering” that would force students to study “what industry wants” rather than what students want.

Ouch!  Sounds godawful.   But here’s the thing– this is not Walker’s idea; it’s an old, fairly passe idea, which he seems to have finally gotten around to reading about. (And by the way, most students simply want jobs– which may be the same thing industry wants. Given the narrow k12 system we’re putting them through, we can’t be surprised at this outcome.)

The current higher education funding model is built on “butts in seats”– the more students you enroll, the more money you get, up to a point. In this system, degree completion rates could be 25% or 90% and institutions would still get paid the same. If you believe graduation rates have anything to do with institutional effort, and there’s some evidence that they do, this is a problem.  The policy shift from a focus on enrollment to a focus on completion occurred over the last 10 years, and has finally reached Wisconsin.

Is that a good thing? Not entirely. Is it a bad one? Not entirely either.  I’ve written about the problems with how higher education tends to ignore the college completion challenge; instead of accepting responsibility for completion rates, institutions tend to blame the students. If an 18-year-old freshman drops out of college, it’s the student’s “fault” but if a 17-year-old junior year in high school drops, it’s either the parent or the teacher’s “fault.” This is an old model, from a time when college enrollment was fairly uncommon and clearly a “choice” rather than an economic necessity embraced by the vast majority of Americans as “required.”  We have to catch up.

So let’s try taking the focus on completion as a good thing — AT LEAST FOR STUDENTS– and worry instead about the devilish details that could screw it up. (Yes, this is a big assumption– it’s not clear the completion agenda is good for students, and it’s obviously not always good for educators, but I have to start somewhere!)

(1) The focus on completion must not sacrifice the focus on enrollment.  Sound impossible? Only to educators. In fact, people in the job training realm have thought about this issue for years and managed to craft metrics that encourage programs to both open their doors and do a good job at providing training and access to high quality employment.  The key is crafting metrics to prevent creaming — the phenomenon that occurs when a college says “Want us to jack the college completion rate? We’ll just increase our admissions bar.”   If the measure requires the institution to raise completion rater while not changing admissions standards, this can be prevented. Similarly, if you want the completion rates to rise while not locking out in-state students, that must be built in. One option is a variation on “risk-adjusted metrics” or “value-added” metrics though these are currently incredible flawed and should not be simply imported from national initiatives since they still largely fail to distinguish institutional characteristics (and missions) from student inputs (maybe because it’s near-impossible given the strong feedback loop between the two).

(2) Process measures should be included to ensure quality is maintained. Colleges can raise graduation rates by simply reducing the number of credits required to graduate and/or making it easier to pass our courses. This isn’t desirable, and close attention to these process measures will help. Tennessee and Washington State provide some examples, though I prefer Maryland’s far more sophisticated model of reform.

(3) Completion alone is not enough. Coupling the graduation metric with assessments of both learning and job outcomes will help ensure the provision of a well-rounded education leading to both short-term employment and long-term job security. It doesn’t help Wisconsin to have its colleges and universities turned into job-training shops that prepare people for the jobs of today — as demanded by current employers.  We need to prepare people for the jobs of tomorrow and the days after that–we want them to get and keep jobs and have careers– and research clearly demonstrates that critical thinking skills and the ability to find multiple solutions to problems, the sorts of things that liberal arts education teaches incredibly well, are essential to doing this.  Governor Walker wants a legacy– and so should focus on that long-term horizon, thinking forward and far to imagining how public higher education can help rebuild the state’s economy.

(4) If you want real action, make the measures meaningful.  Study after study shows that implementation is everything– policy agendas fail if the actors don’t buy in. They have to find the metrics meaningful and know how to meet those standards.  Getting buy-in from the workhorses of higher education– the faculty– requires avoiding a top-down approach and going with the “Wisconsin local” approach to metric creation.  Again, don’t bother with importing metrics from outside initiatives. These may be a useful starting point for local creators, but they are also unproven.   Walker has thousands of bright minds throughout the state capable of building smart metrics. As Tom Friedman recommended in yesterday’s New York Times he can help link up faculty and business in an exchange of ideas and good things will result.  With real leadership, business will come to see professors as mostly useful people who are already focused on getting students the skills they need to succeed– we are simply different in our focus on longer-term skills.  That may indeed be too narrow; some programs will need professors who see business’s desire to have people trained in today’s requirements. Both can and do have space in Wisconsin higher education, between the technical colleges and UW System.

(5) Tie money to metrics carefully.  Lessons from other states indicate that success has been achieved when performance has resulted in incentive funding– a lift up– rather than the reduction in base funding— a leveling down. One step at a time rather than massive change that leads to marches on the Capital rather than productive action would be a smart way to go.

There is plenty of indication that Wisconsin higher education administrators saw this coming. Locally, David Ward’s Year of Innovation at UW-Madison is quite reminiscent of Michael Crow’s efforts at Arizona State– a place I suspect Walker finds appealing.  It is less effective thus far than hoped, in my estimation, mainly because it’s come across as a top-down effort focused on the bottom line rather than a botton-up excitement among faculty to find new ways to do their current jobs.  (Imagine, what if the Year of Innovation had been pitched as a way to make teaching more enjoyable, flexible, and easier to integrate with research– rather than more profitable?)

Certainly, it’s hard for any thoughtful educator to recommend with a straight face that we embrace ideas stemming from Walker’s office.  But the focused effort on completion accompanied by institutional accountability isn’t coming from Walker’s office. It’s part of a national agenda endorsed by President Obama.  Those on the Left should not uncritically accept it (and I definitely don’t) but they must remember that fact.

My recommendation to Wisconsin public higher education:  Instead of fighting this effort, through shared governance get the faculty, staff, and students together and begin to work on approaches to completion and accountability that are mutually productive.  This is not easy to do and if anyone pretends that it is, call them out on a foolish agenda.  But, I believe, this is necessary engagement if you want to improve both the quality of higher education in this state and its financial support. 

ps. Step 1: Invite Jane Wellman , Brit Kirwan, and leaders from the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education together to visit and stimulate conversation and action.

pps. I highly recommend this quick overview of performance funding for those new to it.

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