University systems across the nation have been experimenting with the idea of linking public funding to performance measures for at least the past decade. This gives our state leaders some good footing to build on as they go about creating a system that fits the unique higher education needs of Montana.
Though discussions about performance measures have been taking place in the Montana University System for years, this legislative session brought a formal proposal to tie as-yet-unspecified benchmarks to a portion – about 5 percent, or $7.5 million – of future funding. So far, the idea has received support from nearly every corner; last month, Gov. Steve Bullock, Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian and the entire Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education gave their approval to a budget addendum that, for the first time, would make a portion of the university system’s biennial budget dependent on performance.
The reasoning behind their support is sound, and outcomes from other states point to the likely success of such a system in our state. Much more critical – and controversial – will be determining which performance standards to adopt and how best to measure them.
While systemwide performance standards have yet to be determined and defined, they will almost certainly include graduation rates. Bullock made increasing the percentage of college degree holders in Montana an important part of his overall vision in his recent State of the State address. The addendum he and Christian signed specifically mentions “increasing college completions and other related outcomes aimed at accelerating time to degree.”
In this regard, there is strong evidence performance-based funding systems can help. In Pennsylvania, which has been held up as a leader by the Lumina Foundation for Education for its performance-based funding structure, the state’s four-year colleges have increased their graduation rates by roughly 10 percent in 10 years. In Ohio, the median time to earn a bachelor’s degree dropped only slightly from 4.7 to 4.3 years – and remained lower – after performance-based funding was adopted.
The experiences of other states have also shown that it is of critical importance to correctly tailor any adopted standards to each individual institution. It’s also important to have accurate method tracking of student achievement – one that allows comparisons to be drawn between education institutions that may have very different missions.
Creating such a system won’t be easy or without argument, but Montana is fortunate in that can look to the successes and failure of university systems in other states – as well as to its own deep pool of expertise.
Earlier this month, the Board of Regents agreed that higher education faculty should be involved in determining which performance standards will be adopted. Their input will be considered along with nationally recognized best practices, along with advice from an outside consultant. Next month, Missoula and Bozeman will begin hosting discussions focused on performance standards.
Meanwhile, Bullock and Christian have both signed a memorandum of understanding that freezes in-state tuition for the next two academic years – so long as the Legislature approves a full $164 million in funding for the university system for each of the next two years. The Legislature would do well to support performance-based funding as a meaningful way of promoting both affordability and accountability within the Montana University System.
EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen