Performance-based funding (PBF) policies in higher education, in which states fund colleges in part based on student outcomes instead of enrollment measures or historical tradition, have spread rapidly across states in recent years. This push for greater accountability has resulted in more than half of all states currently using PBF to fund at least some colleges, with deep-blue California joining a diverse group of states by developing a PBF policy for its community colleges.
Academic researchers have flocked to the topic of PBF over the last decade and have produced dozens of studies looking at the effects of PBF both on a national level and for individual states. In general, this research has found modest effects of PBF, with some differences across states, sectors, and how long the policies have been in place. There have also been concerns about the potential unintended consequences of PBF on access for low-income and minority students, although new policies that provide bonuses to colleges that graduate historically underrepresented students seem to be promising in mitigating these issues.
In spite of the intense research and policy interest in PBF, relatively little is known about what is actually in these policies. States vary considerably in how much money is tied to student outcomes, which outcomes (such as retention and degree completion) are incentivized, and whether there are bonuses for serving low-income, minority, first-generation, rural, adult, or veteran students. Some states also give bonuses for STEM graduates, which is even more important to understand given this week’s landmark paper by Kevin Stange and colleagues documenting differences in the cost of providing an education across disciplines.
Most research has relied on binary indicators of whether a state has a PBF policy or an incentive to encourage equity, with some studies trying to get at the importance of the strength of PBF policies by looking at individual states. But researchers and advocacy organizations cannot even agree on whether certain states had PBF policies in certain years, and no research has tried to fully catalog the different strengths of policies (“dosage”) across states over time.
Because collecting high-quality data on the nuances of PBF policies is a time-consuming endeavor, I was just about ready to walk away from studying PBF given my available resources. But last fall at the Association for the Study of Higher Education conference, two wonderful colleagues approached me with an idea to go out and collect the data. After a year of working with Justin Ortagus of the University of Florida and Kelly Rosinger of Pennsylvania State University—two tremendous assistant professors of higher education—we are pleased to announce that we have received a $204,528 grant from the William T. Grant Foundation to build a 20-year dataset containing detailed information about the characteristics of PBF policies and how much money is at stake.
Our dataset, which will eventually be made available to the public, will help us answer a range of policy-relevant questions about PBF. Some particularly important questions are whether dosage matters regarding student outcomes, whether different types of equity provisions are effective in reducing educational inequality, and whether colleges respond to PBF policies differently based on what share of their funding comes from the state. We are still seeking funding to do these analyses over the next several years, so we would love to talk with interested foundations about the next phases of our work.
To close, one thing that I tell often-skeptical audiences of institutional leaders and fellow faculty members is that PBF policies are not going away anytime soon and that many state policymakers will not give additional funding to higher education without at least a portion being directly tied to student outcomes. These policies are also rapidly changing, in part driven by some of the research over the last decade that was not as positive toward many early PBF systems. This dataset will allow us to examine which types of PBF systems can improve outcomes across all students, thus helping states improve their current PBF systems.