Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Funding on a Curve

“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.” -- Lloyd Bridges in Airplane

My state is considering tying individual colleges’ shares of the state higher ed allocation to “performance” on a series of measures.  

And it has no intention of increasing the size of the allocation.  In other words, for Northern State to get more, Southern State would have to get less.  We’ll be funded on a curve.

In a state with a tenure system and a statewide union.


This will not end well.

With the overall allocation flat or shrinking, every college is pretty much up against it already. None of them has much margin for error.  That’s especially true given how fixed most of the costs are, and how old most of the buildings are.  (Gotta love 70’s architecture!)  

Now they’re being told that it’s not enough that they do well; they must do better than their counterparts.  If Northern State’s “score” -- however defined -- moves up five points, but Southern State’s moves up ten, then Northern State takes a cut.  

If the colleges had large endowments, this could be a spur to entrepreneurialism.  If they were gambling with money they could afford to lose, then this could be just the kick in the pants they needed to start trying more ambitious things.  The prospect of the big win can justify the risky play.

But when the colleges are running on empty at the outset, the prospect of any meaningful loss is simply intolerable.  Instead of spurring innovation, this will heighten the already-strong culture of loss aversion.  Taking a flyer on a strategy that would take years to pay off isn’t an option when the years in between could require layoffs.

Worse, any kind of statewide collaboration -- exactly the sort of thing that would “move the needle” on educational attainment, workforce development, or any social good you care to name -- would be entirely out of the question.  Why would I share my breakthrough innovation with Nearby State, when it would erode my competitive advantage?  

And just how long, exactly, do you think it would take before the quick fix of grade inflation starts to look attractive?

This is nuts.  It’s self-defeating, internally contradictory, and doomed to fail.  And it has political momentum.

If you want to reward performance, you need to create a climate in which it’s reasonably safe to collaborate and take risks.  That’s the only way that the system as a whole will improve.  If the community colleges improve across the entire state, then everybody should win.  (If complacency is the issue -- and let’s be honest here -- then tying significant rewards to collaborative gains should do it.  Requiring the gains to be collaborative would reduce the temptation to push grade inflation, and making the rewards substantial should get around inertia.)  Unfortunately, in the current political climate, the only way to do that is to raise tuition and fees to the point at which growth becomes profitable.  By definition, that would involve shifting more of the cost of attendance to the students.  Ideally, of course, the institutional reward would come from the state, based on progressive taxation and economic growth.  But we’re not there.

But there’s a meaningful difference between falling short of the ideal and doing active harm.  I know that my proto-Swedish solution remains bafflingly unpopular, but telling the colleges to turn on each other is not the only other possible answer.  

Even in my teaching days, I was never a fan of grading on a curve; it always seemed to reward the wrong things.  But at least then, the stakes were lower.  I don’t want to have to lay someone off because my college was too willing to share the secrets of its success.