Previous versions of state performance-based funding (PBF) policies were frequently criticized for encouraging colleges to simply become more selective in order to get more state funding (see a good summary of the research here). This has potential concerns for equity, as lower-income, first-generation, adult, and racial/ethnic minority students often need additional supports to succeed in college compared to their more advantaged peers.
With the support of foundations and advocacy organizations, the most recent wave of state PBF policies has often included provisions that encourage colleges to enroll traditionally underrepresented students. For example, Indiana now gives $6,000 to a college if a low-income student completes a bachelor’s degree; while this is far less than the $23,000 that the college gets if a student completes their degree in four years, it still provides an incentive for colleges to change their recruitment and admissions practices. Today, at least sixteen states provide incentives for colleges to serve underrepresented students.
Given the growth of these equity provisions, it is not surprising that researchers are now turning their attention to these policies. Denisa Gandara of SMU and Amanda Rutherford of Indiana University published a great article in Research in Higher Education last fall looking at the effects of these provisions among four-year colleges. They found that the policies were at least somewhat effective in encouraging colleges to enroll more racial/ethnic minority and lower-income students.
As occasionally happens in the research world, multiple research teams were studying the same topic at the same time. I was also studying the same topic, and my article was accepted in The Journal of Higher Education a few days before their article was released. My article is now available online (the pre-publication version is here), and my findings are generally similar—PBF policies with equity provisions can at the very least help reduce incentives for colleges to enroll fewer at-risk students.
The biggest contribution of my work is how I define the comparison group in my analyses. The treatment group is easy to define (colleges that are subject to a PBF policy with equity provisions), but comparison groups often combine colleges that face PBF without equity provisions with colleges that are not subject to PBF. By dividing those two types of colleges into separate comparison groups, I can dig deeper into how the provisions of performance funding policies affect colleges. And I did find some differences in the results across the two comparison groups, highlighting the importance of more nuanced comparison groups.
Much more work still needs to be done to understand the implications of these new equity provisions. In particular, more details are needed about which components are in a state’s PBF system, and qualitative work is sorely needed to help researchers and policymakers understand how colleges respond to the nuances of different states’ policies. Given the growing group of scholars doing research in this area, I am confident that the state of PBF research will continue to improve over the next few years.