Proceed with caution

Dave Player

Imagine there is an obstacle you must clear. Your life’s work up to this point and your hopes for the future demand that you rise above it. Would you dedicate yourself to the task, embarking on a years-long journey of character building and personal growth? Or would you just lower the bar?

During the current session, state legislators have passed a bill that will modify the current formula in place for dividing state funding for Texas institutions of higher learning. While not directly “lowering the bar,” the new system creates a dangerous regulatory environment with the potential to degrade the quality of education offered by those institutions.

Currently, the formula for state funding for Texas colleges and universities is based on the number of credit hours undertaken at each institution. Essentially, funding is driven primarily by enrollment.

House Bill 9, also called the Higher Education Outcomes-Based Funding Act, passed the state House of Representatives by a vote of 118 – 22 and was unanimously passed by the Senate. The bill will modify the current formula for funding Texas higher education to allow for 10 percent of state funding to be determined by “outcome-based” metrics — namely, graduation rates. Lawmakers such as Sen. Judith Zaffarini, D-Laredo, have argued doing so would incentivize college and university officials to prioritize graduation rates. Somehow, administrators would take this shift in funding and change their policies to encourage more students to graduate. As if that was not already the goal.

On the surface, this change would seem to be a reasonable reform intended to create a better formula that would reward the schools for performing well. Texas ranks critically low when it comes to the percentage of residents with college degrees, with only 33 percent of Texans holding a bachelor’s degree. Motivating Texas colleges and universities to help their students complete their degree plan serves both students and institutions. Meanwhile, such an “outcomes-based” formula would seem to put added pressures on university administrators during a time when legislators from both sides of the aisle are calling for greater accountability.

However, those very pressures have the potential to be far more corrosive to the quality of Texas higher education than any funding reduction or partisan reform. Laying off professors and increasing class sizes is one problem, but modifying whole degree plans out of budgetary concerns is antithetical to this University’s mission and would reduce our school to a university of the second class, at best. Furthermore, while higher education “reformers” have been harping about the need to increase graduation rates for years, this latest measure comes troublingly close to echoing the rhetoric trumpeting “efficiency” and “productivity” that has consumed the discussion of Texas higher education for most of this past spring. The danger here being that a “productive” university, one that regularly churns out diplomas, is not always equivalent to a good university, one which actually educates its students.

In the short term, the new system could actually be beneficial to the University. UT has the highest four-year graduation rate in the state and the second highest six-year graduation rate. Still, the University’s six-year rate is 83.5 percent, making it one of the lowest among schools in the U.S. News’’ annual Top 50 ranking. If that trend were to continue, then one in five of next fall’s incoming class of 2015 will leave the Forty Acres without a diploma. While lagging graduation rates certainly merit attention, tying those rates to state funding has the potential to create a conflict of interests for University officials.

On one hand, Texas universities are in desperate need of any additional funding, so administrators have strong incentives to boost their graduation rates. On the other, those same administrators have an obligation to educate students and provide a quality education.

So, strapped for cash, the quickest and simplest way for a Texas university president to increase his or her school’s graduation rates would be to modify and lessen the requirements for graduation. That could mean reducing degree requirements or lowering the threshold for what constitutes a “passing” grade. And, that’s exactly the type of short-selling that many Texas professors fear will occur once funding is tied to graduation rates. The Texas Faculty Association has come out against the bill, voicing concerns that faculty will be forced to compromise their schools’ academic integrity in order to boost graduation rates. Critics of the bill have also warned that it would disincentivise schools from accepting students who are less likely to graduate in six years, such as non-traditional students and students from low-income families.

The danger in subscribing to these “outcome-based” measures is that all too often, the actual outcomes do not change at all. Lowering standards to create the illusion of progress would be a disservice to future Texans. Coupled with the current batch of crippling budget cuts to K-12 public education, it seems state lawmakers are more concerned with making sure the next generation of Texans are “educated” in name only, even if that “education” is delivered via public policy and slipping standards, rather than hard work and merit.

— Dave Player for the editorial board