02/15/2013 02:14 pm ET Updated Apr 17, 2013

Performance Funding for Higher Education

I'm a believer in performance funding for state institutions of higher learning, at least where some measure of sense is displayed in devising the appropriate formula. In 2010 Tennessee adopted a performance-funding model which funnels 100 percent of our state funding through the performance formula. This formula is a huge improvement over the previous enrollment-driven formula, which was effectively frozen in time as of about 1999. That is to say, for more than a decade, Austin Peay State University, the state's fastest growing public university since 2000, received not a penny more of state funding for its increased enrollment. Any new funding, then, was obviously better than no new funding. But Tennessee new funding formula has not only provided us with additional resources with which to serve our students, it has done so wisely.

The new formula identifies a series of outcomes, most related to student persistence and graduation. It then weights these different outcomes depending on institutional mission. Thus, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has a higher weighting for research and doctoral degree production than Austin Peay, which primarily serves undergraduate students. Finally, for most of the persistence and graduation-related outcomes, the formula provides a bonus for two categories of students: low income and adult students.

The recognition of differences in student populations was crucial to evaluating institutional performance appropriately. Adult and low income-students, for example, have national graduation rates significantly less than traditional-aged students, say, in the upper quartile of family incomes. Similarly, a 30-year-old soldier, pursuing a degree online from Austin Peay even while serving her country in Afghanistan, is likely to graduate at a slower pace, if she is able to graduate at all, than a traditional-aged, upper-income student with two generations of college education parents and grandparents attending University of Tennessee, Knoxville. To fail to account for differences in student-demographics when measuring institutional performance is in no way fair or rational. A state might as soon send trucks to ferry resources from adult and low-income serving institutions to those serving traditional-aged, upper-income students.

As I said, though, Tennessee was wiser than this. The state understands full well that it cannot reach its goal of producing more college-education citizens without gradating more low-income and adult students. Its performance-based funding model takes this goal, as well as the goal of fairness, into account.

So far, our determined focus on helping more Austin Peay students succeed is paying off. For the first two years of the new performance funding (2012-13 and 2013-14), Austin Peay has ranked number one among Tennessee institutions for increased, performance-based funding. This year, for example, if Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam's budget is approved by the legislature, Austin Peay stands to see an increase of more than $3 million, or 11 percent of its state appropriation.

I sometimes hear it suggested that institutions will lower their standards in states where performance funding is enacted. This thought, in my mind, is akin to suggesting that the only way a student can make better grades is to cheat. It assumes that institutions can't improve student performance without lowering academic standards. This assumption is -- I hope I am not being too caustic -- laughable. Any number of strategies have been shown over the past generation to help more students succeed and graduate without lower standards. In fact, students are more likely to succeed in many instances where we expect more from them, at the same time we provide them new or additional forms of support. This, at least, is what I tell the faculty at my university. And I would be astonished if they were to heed, for even an instant, any administrator -- including me -- who suggested they pave the way for increased state funding by lowering their academic standards.

In any event, I don't think we're done improving either student success or student learning at Austin Peay. We can't ever eliminate the need for students to take responsibility for their own learning. But I'm convinced we can do more to help them learn and to support their success.