System presidents discuss funding proposal

Higher education system leaders said they generally approve of a plan legislators are floating to more closely link their state funding to performance measures such as graduation and retention rates.

Their support for the plan, however, relies on the Legislature spelling out a clearly defined set of measures on which colleges and universities would be judged.

University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley and Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Joe May said some performance measures such as graduation rates don’t tell the whole story.

Woodley said the problem is finding the right funding model. “It’s really easy to get it wrong,” she said.

LSU System President William Jenkins and Southern University President Ronald Mason both said they support more accountability and performance-based funding. But they said they want to see a copy of the legislation before weighing in at length.

State Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, and state Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, are pushing what they call an outcome-based model, where schools would have to meet the average performance standards of their peers in the South in order to receive their full share of state funding.

Both said they would offer a bill in the 2013 legislative session, which opens April 8.

Carter and Appel, who chair the Louisiana House and state Senate Education Committees respectively, said the state’s colleges and universities have a serious performance problem that, so far, has been largely overlooked as the statewide conversation has been focused primarily on budget cuts.

A number of other legislators have griped privately that the state’s existing college performance bill, the 2010 LA GRAD Act, which ties 15 percent of state funding to a broad range of performance standards, does not go far enough. Much of the criticism about the GRAD Act stems from colleges and universities having the ability to negotiate their performance goals with the state.

Appel said an outcome-based bill would give schools a clearer target to hit.

For instance, a school like Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond — a regional, four-year university that doesn’t offer an engineering degree — would be compared to schools throughout the South with similar characteristics, Appel said.

“There’s probably 100 of those schools in the South,” he said. “The goal is that, over time, Southeastern should meet or exceed the average graduation and retention rates of those schools.”

Without the benefit of seeing the basic outline of the bill, Woodley said, Louisiana generally needs a funding model that accurately provides incentives for performance. But she said legislators should take into account how much it costs schools to provide the required degrees and results.

“Whatever the funding model, it has to have a basis in truth,” she said. “We have to ask what each school should be able to achieve with the resources they have. You can’t hold an institution accountable for things that institution has no control over.”

Woodley presides over nine, mostly regional-based schools. She said a performance measure, such as the graduation rate, doesn’t take into account students who transfer to a school, part-time students, or those who take longer than six years to graduate.

Roughly 48 percent of the students in the UL System who graduate don’t get counted toward the graduation rate because of the way that standard is calculated, she added.

“Nobody is saying the graduation rate is unimportant, but it is an inferior measure to degrees produced,” Woodley said.

May agreed that the current graduation rate “is a very narrow definition of success.”

In a college system made up of two-year schools, May said, LCTCS admits some students with the highest risk of dropping out. Many of those students enroll specifically to take a class or two, he said, with no intention of earning an associate degree.

May said a college funding bill should take those factors into account.

“If a college is going to take on risk and take on people not predicted to be successful, and that college actually does prepare them to be successful, there should be some recognition of that,” May said. “I don’t think we’ve gotten it right yet as far as funding.”

May suggested any new college funding bill should be separated into tiers with different formulas to measure schools with different missions such as LSU, the University of New Orleans and Baton Rouge Community College.