(Still) Don’t Dismiss Performance Funding Research

I like the idea of funding public colleges and universities based in part on their former students’ outcomes—and I’m far from the only one. Something in the ballpark of three dozen states have adopted some sort of a performance-based funding (PBF) system, with more states currently discussing the program. Given that many states currently fund colleges based on a combination of enrollment levels and historical allocations that can be woefully out-of-date, tying some funding to outcomes has an intuitive appeal.

However, as a researcher of accountability policies in higher education, I am concerned that some colleges may be responding to PBF in unintended ways. At this point, as I briefly summarized in a recent piece at The Conversation, there is evidence that PBF may adversely affect access to college for moderately prepared students as well as the types of postsecondary credentials awarded. My newest contribution was a recently published article in the Journal of Education Finance that found both two-year and four-year colleges subject to PBF saw less Pell revenue than other colleges not subject to PBF.

Since that article finished the peer review and copy editing processes and was posted online two weeks ago, I’ve been expecting a response from one of the largest organizations advocating for PBF. HCM Strategists, a DC-based advocacy group that is quite effective in lobbying and policy development, has traditionally been a strong supporter of PBF. (Disclaimer: I’ve gotten funding from them for a project on a different topic in the past.) In 2013, an HCM director responded to a high-quality paper by David Tandberg and Nick Hillman (that was later published in JEF) by writing an Inside Higher Ed piece called “Don’t Dismiss Performance Funding.” In this piece, they call the research “flawed” and “simplistic,” neither of which are particularly true. I wrote a blog post called “Don’t Dismiss Performance Funding Research,” in which I wasn’t too pleased with their response.

Today, HCM director Martha Snyder has a much more nuanced IHE essay on my and Luke’s work entitled “Jumping to Conclusions,” saying that our work should not be used “to draw any meaningful conclusions” on PBF. Snyder discusses what she perceives as some of the limitations of our work. The most notable one is that multiple types of PBF policies are lumped together in the analyses. That is necessary due to data limitations—there is no comprehensive archive of the nuances of PBF plans prior to the early 2010s. However, general trends in PBF policies across states are partially captured by the year fixed effects in the regression (standard practice in panel analyses), which also help to account for these factors.

Snyder also suggests that some states have been encouraging students to enroll in community colleges, which is definitely the case (although somewhat less so prior to 2012-13, the last year of our analysis due to the pace at which new data become available). If this were true, it would explain decreases in per-FTE Pell revenue at four-year colleges, but also increase Pell revenues at two-year colleges. Instead, we saw nearly identical negative point estimates, which raise further cause for concern. (Could this affect for-profit enrollment? I can’t really tell with federal data, but a state-level analysis here would be great.)

I appreciate HCM’s work in helping states implement more modern funding programs, but it is imperative that influential policy organizations work with the research community before drawing any meaningful conclusions about the potential unintended consequences of PBF—especially as the stakes become higher for students and colleges alike. The small, but growing, body of literature on colleges’ responses to PBF suggests that collaboration among interested parties would be far more productive than attempting to dismiss findings from peer-reviewed research that suggest caution may be in order. I’m happy to do what I can to summarize the literature on unintended consequences while working to move forward policy discussions on future versions of PBF.

Author: Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.