Outcome-based funding, which espouses a singular version of success, would negatively impact Oregon community colleges and their students. This funding basis has proved less than successful in other states. It is fraught with complexities, and community colleges in states where it has been implemented are attempting to find ways to make the flawed model work.
I strongly agree with Lane President Mary Spilde on this matter. She’s had her head on the chopping block about this for years, and it’s time more of us got involved.
Essentially, outcomes-based funding is a finance distribution model that favors colleges with higher student completion rates. All things being equal the model might be fair, but things are not equal. At Lane Community College 74 percent of students qualify for the Pell Grant. This means that a very high percentage of Lane students live in poverty. For them, this proposed funding basis spells trouble.
Give students a chance
We’ve got homeless students, almost homeless students, those juggling more than one job, students with families to provide for, single parents and people who life has kicked in the teeth in one way or another, or in many ways. Daily, I see such students working hard to get ahead. It’s not for lack of trying that they might not graduate.
When people with financial security experience setbacks, it’s inconvenient. For our students on the fringes it can be catastrophic; they don’t just drop out of college, their whole lives can fall apart. The majority of our students are in this predicament, and attending Lane gives them a fighting chance to get out of it.
Throughout his guest viewpoint in the Register Guard on Sunday, March 8,Tim Nesbitt, chairman of the Oregon Higher Education Commission, emphasized the importance of course completion as a focus of outcomes-based funding.
“What we don’t want to encourage or reward is failure – students’ failure to persist in their studies, or institutions’ failure to support students through to completion of their course and programs of study,” he said.
Nesbitt paints a black and white picture of success and failure, which essentially portrays course completion as success and anything else as failure. This simplistic view does not include the many nuances of success of which students and others at Lane are keenly aware.
“Whatever their causes, these failures leave students with burdensome debt and taxpayers with a squandered investment,” Nesbitt said about those who don’t complete courses. Success is not defined by degrees and certificates. Students have a wide variety of goals, which might not include completion.
Nesbitt mentions student diversity and goals, but railroads straight back to outcomes:
“To the contrary, the changes our commission is pursuing will recognize the increased costs of serving underrepresented and first-time college-going students and reward colleges that do their best work in achieving better outcomes for all students,” he said.
Stop — pitfalls ahead
To make matters worse, evidence suggests that this funding model is flawed. Results from a study released on Nov. 11, 2014 by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University on outcomes-based funding indicate that caution is needed.
Unintended consequences, according to the study, include “weakened academic standards, lack of cooperation between state institutions that now viewed each other as competitors, unexpected costs of compliance, and lowered staff and faculty morale.”
A four-year university in the study raised its admissions criteria so that the university would have fewer high-risk students. While the community colleges surveyed had not followed suit, “faculty and staff expressed concern that their institutions feel similarly pressured to move away from an open-access model.” The pressures they feel should serve as our warning.
We must look ahead to the pitfalls. To refuse students entry, because they fit a profile that indicates they may not complete their courses of study, would be a flagrant assault on the mission of Lane. And it could potentially cripple such students from ever getting ahead.
Factor in the cost of compliance, and this funding model looks even worse. Oregon community colleges would need to change their processes in order to comply. It seems foolhardy to me to subject colleges, that are already struggling financially, to labor-intensive and expensive procedures for something that has proven to be faulty.
Prudence is called for
Let the other states do the work of perfecting their systems. If they succeed and the funding basis starts showing results, then Oregon can join the party with confidence. In the meantime, Oregon colleges can put taxpayer dollars to better use improving existing student support systems that they know work.
The 26 percent per student increase in funding Nesbitt mentions, does not indicate the financial windfall he depicts. Rather, it reflects the steep decline in enrollment over recent years — less students, equals higher per student funding — the recent, and inadequate, increase from 500 million to 535 million for Oregon community colleges does not drive the equation.
Focus on completion is misplaced. Classes are about learning, insights, building competencies, the exchange of ideas and making connections, not just graduation and certificates. If students take what they learn at Lane and get better jobs, or create small businesses, are they failures? Have they squandered taxpayers’ money? Not in my book.
Those who support outcomes-based funding have a narrow view of what a community college can provide for a person and what that person might then accomplish.
Some students are not sure about their direction in life and come to Lane to explore their options. Many find mentors among our pretty impressive teachers or even among fellow students. We’ve got talented, experienced, caring teachers, and we’ve got a whole slew of underdogs. That’s a combination with huge upside potential.
True grit and determination
Americans have always possessed a strong entrepreneurial spirit, even though increasing regulations and fees place entrepreneurs and small business owners in straitjackets. The spirit to succeed usually finds a way, and that spirit alive and well at Lane. With today’s technology and with very little money, individuals can do what it once took a lot of people, or even whole factories to do. It just takes ingenuity, hard work and usually a few failures along the way.
Lane Community College is a comprehensive community resource. Lane not only provides opportunities for people without higher education, it’s a safe healthy environment where many community residents find a sense of belonging and meaning. It’s where the disadvantaged are welcomed as equals and a place where people have transformed their lives from ones of desperation to success. How’s that for outcomes?
The biggest failure I see in this whole picture is not students who don’t complete. The failure lies in Oregon’s future if this funding basis, promoted by the Oregon Higher Education Commission, is adopted prematurely, or perhaps at all. It is fraught with problems, poses a serious threat to the futures of disadvantaged students and fails to recognize the multi-faceted nature of student success.