Friday, July 30, 2010

The New Math: UT System Funding Model to Hold Schools Accountable for Student Success

In an interesting (and long-awaited) move by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (unaffectionately known as T-HEC), Chattanooga Times Free Press reports that "state universities and colleges will no longer be rewarded for just getting students in the door and will be forced to improve student outcomes if they want state support".

In effect, what this means to me is that front-loading the university with unsuspecting and ill-prepared students to meet enrollment goals (and, by extension, funding goals), will hopefully no longer be common practice. The law will likely produce some serious challenges, but it also offers a number of benefits compared to the current system. First, another quote from the Chattanooga Times Free Press article on how the funding model impacts UTC:

"Twenty-five percent of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s future funding will be linked to the number of bachelor degrees produced. Another 10 percent will be tied to both the six-year graduation rate and the number of degrees per 100 full-time students, according to commission documents."

Obvious challenges. UTC's retention rate has hovered around a limp-tastic 60%, occasionally dipping into the high 50% range. In order to maximize the funding formula for an already bootstrapped campus, this is going to have to change drastically. On the bright side, UTC has been trying to deal with retention issues and has some programs already in place, such as the FAST program, as described by the University paper.

This may also make the University look twice at entering freshmen. In recent years, UTC has allowed entrance to students with serious deficiencies in writing and math, creating a situation where a student's first term or two might be completely taken up with remedial courses not eligible to count towards degree requirements. While this appeared in line with reducing barriers to a college education, particularly since our campus serves a high percentage of first-generation college students [edit: debunked - as pointed out by Ralph in the comments - turns out the Uni often said that without actual data; actual data does not support that claim], it also creates a situation where students are admitted to a university completely unprepared for university-level education. This saps resources, as faculty, space, and other resources are spent on teaching sub-level courses to the detriment of the actual university curriculum.

I firmly believe that we should help students succeed, and if they need remedial classes, so be it. I do not, however, believe we should be charging students university-level tuition for courses they take which will not have any bearing on the credits required for their degree. I also think it is a convenient camouflage for a problematic K-12 system that a university should need to essentially also become a second shot at high school - we're not equipped for it, and we're not funded for it. Yes, remedial program should exist so that these folks can get an undergraduate degree, absolutely. That should not, however, be at the expense of existing academic programs or at the expense of treatment of students fully capable of pursuing college-level coursework. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happens.

Betting the funding farm on huge incoming classes is problematic in terms of infrastructure as well. When you expand faster than your facilities - your parking, your dormitories, your classrooms, your libraries, and your faculty, you are inevitably diluting the educational (and, let's face it, physical) experience of education. Not only will you start seeing more 300-student classes (something I happily managed to avoid during my extremely extended educational career), you don't have enough parking to allow those students to get there on time. Nor, in fact, do you have anywhere for those sized classes to meet, if you're chasing the funding by enrollment numbers and not planning your infrastructure around measured growth. And riddle me this: if your campus network infrastructure struggles under the weight of 10,000FTE - - how on earth will you support 13,000 FTE and the concomitant support staff that comes with that sort of an increase?

In any case, I think it's an important shift in funding, though I imagine the impact in the first few years will be rough, particularly as our University continues to try to improve our student retention and graduation rates, and handled underprepared freshmen. Still, I think it's promising that higher education is realizing that more butts in seats does not necessarily translate into deserving of more state dollars.


Ralph said...

A quibble: UTC is not chock full of first-generation students. That is a myth that was debunked by the first series of data crunching exercises done by the retention people.

Colleen said...

Hr. We still treat them so, though, don't we? Point taken, thank you, will make the edit.

griffey said...

Where might those numbers be, Ralph?

Ralph said...

We had an oral report from Fran Bender and the Provost to the Senate wherein they basically were all "their parents went to college - who knew?"

Nothing hard, data-wise, obviously, it being UTC.