Clearly, most legislators like the idea: A portion of money Montana's campuses get is tied to how well the schools perform.

The amount tied to performance is 8 percent, according to the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education. And the campuses have input into the measures, generally graduation and retention, plus research for the flagships (see related story).

This week, the Board of Regents reviewed the way the new formula is working. Commissioner Clay Christian said at least one campus leader raised a valid concern about it, but the idea has strong support because it bolsters student success.

Not every lawmaker is a fan, though, starting with Rep. Tom Woods of Bozeman, who votes to fund the university system, but objects to the performance model. He admits he's an outlier.

"It's part of putting a corporate model on a university, which really should not operate on a corporate model," said Woods, a Democrat.

If a university is supposed to measure graduation rates, or retention, it will fulfill those expectations, he said. But he said some of the most important components of an education aren't easy to count, and they could get lost in the focus on metrics.

"We take our eye off the ball of good teaching, which is a really hard thing to measure," Woods said.

In general, he said, Republicans got energized about placing market models on public institutions during the Reagan era, and it's dangerous because the goal is efficiency: "When you look for just efficiency ... there's a heckuva lot that you miss."

For Rep. David "Doc" Moore of Missoula, it isn't the performance model itself that he doesn't like, it's the entity in control of it. Moore sees the regents having too much power over higher education, "a fourth branch of government."

"They operate outside the purview of legislative oversight," said Moore, a Republican. "They come to Helena and ask for money, and if we give it to 'em, they can spend it any way they want – or misspend it any way they want."

He pointed to deferred maintenance of buildings on the University of Montana campus as one example of the latter.

The idea to keep legislators at arm's length from academia, and prevent inappropriate meddling, was key during the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention. According to a Montana Legislative Services Division report, the framers selected a model of governance that allowed higher education the most autonomy, and the people adopted it.

Several decades later, Moore sees a downside.

"The unfortunate side effect is we've ended up with the Board of Regents being able to do whatever they want without really any oversight," he said.

Sen. Tom Facey of Missoula sees the university system as an investment in community and the economy, and he doesn't believe enough money is going into higher education. Now, he said, the state contributes 40 percent of a student's education, compared to some 70 percent years ago.

Performance funding is only a small portion of the money the Legislature appropriates to higher education, said Facey, a Democrat. Still, he has concerns about it.

One thing Facey said he appreciates about education in the U.S. compared to other countries is students have more than one opportunity to figure out what their major might be, and they're free to leave the university, take a job and return.

The country is good at second chances, and it should be, Facey said: "If it takes a couple bites of the apple, it does."

He himself jokes about being in the top 90 percent of his class.

"What about those of us that are a little slow in figuring out the system or want to do something else in the middle?" Facey said. "How many college freshmen stay with the same major by the time they're a senior?"

He said he wouldn't go so far as to call the performance model part of the push to place a corporate construct on higher education, but he does see flaws.

"This drive for efficiency, I think, is a little misplaced," Facey said.

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