- New funding for Rhode Island's three public colleges will now be determined by performance, in a plan that would give an additional $50 million in state funding over five years, so long as institutions prove they are increasing graduation rates, among other benchmarks, reports Providence Journal.
- Already, Rhode Island College has increased the percentage of students graduating in four years from 16 to 25 percent, while the University of Rhode Island has already reached its benchmark fo increasing four year graduation rates to 52 percent and raising six-year rates to 65.5 percent — which suggests the performance based model is having a positive impact.
- And, the move is part of a larger trend as 35 states have already implemented similar measures, beginning with Tennessee in the 1970s, as both state resources for public education dwindle and legislators want to hold institutions more accountable for student success. Though, some critics warn the strategy could make public institutions more competitive and less accessible for low-students who need them.
Performance-based funding models hurt low-income students and the institutions which serve them. Many of these students enter college needing some remediation because of poor K-12 feeder systems and a lack of available advanced courses at their schools. Not only that, but a greater number of these students must work while juggling classes and other personal circumstances which middle-class or upper-income students don't face. In many cases, these students may be responsible for helping to support families back home, and this does not always mean their own children — it could be their parents and siblings. This perfect storm of circumstances often makes it difficult for these students to take the requisite 15 credit hour loads each semester to guarantee a degree in four years.
Not only that, but the institutions which disproportionately serve these students are often already receive the lowest amounts of funding and are not given programs which make them more attractive to a broader number of students — so even if per-pupil funding is equal or greater in the state, as is the case in places like Maryland, total funding is still not sufficient to sustain operations at a high level because enrollment is often lower. With fewer resources to begin with, the institutions are not as able to offer the scholarship or grant aid to students who need it most, which presents another barrier to graduation. If those students do go on to graduate, they graduate with more debt than students at other institutions, which puts them in less of a position to give back to their alma maters to help build the endowment pools, and the cycle continues.
Though the percentage of the population living in poverty in Rhode Island is relatively low at 12.8%, policies which create further separation between the bottom and the top are ill-advised. State funding for public colleges is on the decline with research showing states are currently spending around $9 billion less on higher education than in 2008, and other data from this year highlighting how 33 states had garnered revenue below their original projections. Already this is impacting community colleges and public universities as Connecticut recently announced plans to consolidate all 12 of its community colleges under a single system, following recent news out of Wisconsin of a proposal to merge the University of Wisconsin's two-year colleges into its four-year institutions, in an effort to address low enrollment at two-year public schools.
And now with news that a tax bill could put benefits for colleges on the chopping block, institutions struggling to prove value to state legislators will have to do even more to show they are addressing student ROI and putting graduates into the workforce. And working with policymakers to consider a strategy of performance-based funding may be one way institutions can get the resources they need, while maintaining their relevancy. So, it's critical that higher education leaders keep an eye on Rhode Island's progress to see how they might change up their practices or work with policymakers.