As an academic, few things make me happier than reading cutting-edge research conducted by talented scholars. So I was thrilled to see three new articles on a topic near and dear to my heart—performance-based funding (PBF) in higher education—come out in top-tier journals. In this post, I briefly summarize the three articles and look at where the body of research is heading.
Nathan Favero (American University) and Amanda Rutherford (Indiana University). “Will the Tide Lift all Boats? Examining the Equity Effects of Performance Funding Policies in U.S. Higher Education.” Research in Higher Education.
In this article, the authors look at state PBF policies (divided into earlier 1.0 policies and later 2.0 policies) to examine whether PBF affects four-year colleges within a state differently. They found evidence that the wave of 2.0 policies may negatively affect less-selective and less-resourced public universities, while 1.0 policies affected colleges in relatively similar ways. In a useful Twitter thread (another reason why all policy-relevant researchers should be on Twitter!), Nathan discusses the implications on equity.
Lori’s article digs into the extent that PBF policies affect per-student state appropriations at four-year colleges, defining PBF as whether a state had any policy funded in a given year. The first item worth noting from the paper is that per-student funding in PBF states has traditionally been lower than in non-PBF states. This may change going forward as states with more generous funding (such as California) are now adopting PBF policies. Lori’s main finding is that selective and research universities tend to see increased state funding following the implementation of PBF, while less-selective institutions see decreased funding, raising concerns about equity.
As an aside, I had the pleasure of discussing an earlier version of this paper at the 2017 Association for the Study of Higher Education conference (although I had forgotten about that until Lori sent me a nice note when the article came out). I wrote in my comments at that time: “I think it has potential to go to a good journal with a modest amount of additional work.” I’m not often right, but I’m glad I was in this case!
Denisa’s article is a wonderful read alongside the other two because it does not use difference-in-differences techniques to look at quantitative effects of PBF. Instead, she digs into how the legislative sausage of a PBF policy is actually made by studying the policy processes in Colorado (which adopted PBF across two-year and four-year colleges) and Texas (which never adopted PBF in the four-year sector). Her interviews reveal that PBF models in other states and national advocacy groups such as Complete College America and HCM Strategists were far more influential than lowly academic researchers.
In a Twitter thread about her new article, Denisa highlighted the following statement:
As a fellow researcher who also talks with policymakers on a regular basis, I have quite a few thoughts on this statement. Policymakers (including in blue states) are increasingly hesitant to give colleges more money without tying a portion of those funds to student outcomes, and other ways of funding colleges also raise equity concerns. So expect PBF to expand in the next several years.
Does this mean that academic research on PBF is irrelevant? I don’t think so. Advocacy organizations are at least partially influenced by academic research; for example, see how the research on equity metrics in PBF policies has shaped their work. It is the job of researchers to keep raising critical questions about the design of PBF policies, and it is also our job to conduct more nuanced analyses that dive into the details of how policies are constructed. That is why my new project with Kelly Rosinger of Penn State and Justin Ortagus of the University of Florida to collect these details over time excites me so much—it is what the field needs to keep building upon great studies such as the ones highlighted here.