Opinion: Education investments, not carrot-and-stick tactics, aid students

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

In a guest column today, Matthew Boedy, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia, warns that the performance-based funding being touted in Georgia is a proven failure and does not help students, especially first-generation and minority students.

Boedy is conference president of the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a national organization that represents the interests of college and university faculty members.

By Matthew Boedy

It’s that time of year again. Students showing up on campus. Books being bought. And in Georgia, faculty being told they won’t have a job next year. These are tough times in higher education.

It’s hard to know how many faculty are facing job loss around the state after the double whammy of budget cuts due to enrollment declines and the political spat between the University System of Georgia and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones that slashed an extra $66 million.

Most of the 26 schools in our system faced declines last fall amid a trend beginning before the pandemic. That trend parallels less state funding as a percent of the budget. Your tax dollars now pay for less than 50% of public higher education whereas before the 2008 recession it paid for more than 65%, according to the USG.

The question now facing the University System of Georgia is how to advocate for funding for many shrinking schools with a funding formula that has been for decades based on enrollment.

One answer: performance-based funding.

This concept was floated by Chancellor Sonny Perdue at the August Board of Regents meeting. Though he isn’t the first chancellor to bring it up. The system has talked about something like it since Perdue was governor.

And it’s not a new idea nationally. “A majority of states now use some form of” the concept to fund “at least some of their higher education” budget, according to a 2019 report from the Lumina Foundation.

The basic idea is that schools would receive more money or a “bonus” if they met certain performance goals such as raising graduation rates. Schools that didn’t would lose money.

Supporters argue tying money to student success improves the latter because low-performing schools will improve due to the financial incentives.

Credit: Peggy Cozart

Credit: Peggy Cozart

But it hasn’t worked anywhere it’s been tried. A study of “more than 50 studies published between 1998 and 2020″ showed that “performance-based funding typically yields modest or null effects on institutional outcomes … .”

And that’s not because these schools have bad faculty or poor students. It’s that they are not funded enough to meet the goals in the first place. “In higher education, it is likely that the colleges already performing well will have the resources necessary to respond and adapt to the performance regime. Those with the least resources may struggle to respond if they do not have the staffing, experience, or financial capability to adopt or implement new retention and completion initiatives,” according to a 2016 report from the Century Foundation.

And it’s not a surprise those schools that might struggle with performance goals often serve a greater slice of minority student populations than other schools. In other words, in an era where not only is affirmative action banned but institutional actions that help a diverse set of students graduate are under attack, the schools that need most to practice those actions may face a loss of money. Public higher education will slowly become a club of haves and have-nots.

Frankly, many schools are improving without it. When then-Gov. Perdue pushed the idea of performance budgets in 2005, the University System of Georgia wanted to improve the six-year graduation rate from 46% to 57% over the next decade. And at the August regents meeting this year, now-Chancellor Perdue said the USG wants to move that same rate from 63% to 65% over the next five years.

What moved the needle between the Perdue administration then and the one now? Not performance-based funding. In fact, in 2020 when the system praised its rising graduation rate, it listed many reasons, including pushing students to take more classes per semester.

Graduation and career readiness are certainly on the minds of students. But support to get there is also needed.

I was in a pre-semester session with students from the University of North Georgia last week, a group of first-generation students from migrant worker families. They asked questions about professor styles, extra credit and books. Many were anxious about college.

Luckily for them, their support program is funded by a federal grant. But the USG has for years funded an African American Male Initiative. It was one of the most consistent line items in the massive diversity spending report sent by the USG this summer to Lt. Gov. Jones, whose party seems intent on ending such funding.

If schools can’t meet the goals imposed on them, would that needed money go away? Would not that undercut the whole purpose of the goal?

Some Georgians will recognize this kind of false budget logic has been performed in K-12 for decades. Studies have shown that investment in education — not a carrot-and-stick approach — is what helps students.

So why do some continue to push education toward performance-based budgets? They fundamentally misunderstand the practice of education. They want education to work like other institutions such as banks and factories.

But education is not a linear process, often more complex than whatever data is pulled from its practice.

Performance funding doesn’t do what its (mainly conservative) backers want (better success rates) because other factors often outside school control shape success. The African American Male Initiative, for example, helps to give students life skills that other students come to college with. And guess what? The program “consistently produces higher graduation rates than that of the overall African American male (AAM) population,” according to the USG.

You and me and the rest of Georgia taxpayers don’t fund education for better rankings or even more efficient outcomes. We fund teachers and students and buildings and support services because we want graduates, not granular data victories.

And yet critics of public education claim we should fund students, not systems. But your taxes don’t pay for your roads. They pay for our roads. We fund systems because they are the only way to educate all people in all the ways necessary. And if you think systems can’t offer individual attention, let’s chat about class size.

Higher education is definitely a system. And we can certainly make pathways to graduation easier by removing fees and offering more courses. That takes investment.

And, finally, if you think we should not be helping students based on their race, the USG report shows how far beyond that one category USG diversity dollars go. And we spend those millions to increase in students a sense of belonging (which keeps them in school) and to aid those who don’t come to college as prepared as others.

One might call that equity and inclusion. But I’ve been told those words trigger some lawmakers. Let’s just call it public investment.