Sunday, November 25, 2012

Campus vs. Campus?

Should community colleges in different parts of a state compete with each other for funding?

To me, the obvious answer is “no,” but that doesn’t appear obvious to everybody.

I can understand the argument when applied to universities that draw their students nationally.  Stanford and Harvard compete for the same students; I get that.  But that’s not how community colleges work.  With limited exceptions in a few very dense urban settings, generally speaking, students don’t look at more than one or possibly two community colleges.  They look locally, or they don’t look at all.  

But some states are toying with zero-sum “performance” based funding allocation formulas that cover the entire state.  So if, say, Monroe Community College in Rochester does better, then LaGuardia Community in New York City gets less.  Even though a student considering MCC isn’t considering LaGuardia, and vice versa.

This strikes me as defeating the purpose.

The goal of “performance funding” is to tie institutional incentives to statewide goals.  If the state decides, say, that it wants to increase the number of graduates in certain fields, then it could incentivize campuses to do exactly that.  Theoretically, the local campus administrators would then move mountains to get the college to fulfill the goals the state identified.

It’s not a stupid theory.  Incentives matter, and administrators are painfully conscious of budgets.  But a zero-sum competitive formula falls short in identifiable ways.

First, and most obviously, it makes collaboration counterproductive.  If I share my local campus’ breakthroughs with my colleagues at other campuses, then I effectively cut my own budget by diluting my gains relative to theirs.  This creates an incentive to hoard information.  If straits get sufficiently dire, it could even create an incentive to spread disinformation.  What public purpose that serves, I honestly don’t know.  

Second, it fails to recognize that experiments require money.  The campuses that lose in the first round would be hard-pressed to turn it around, since they’d be cutting budgets while trying to improve.  After a couple of bad years, it would be hard to stop a downward spiral.  As anyone in the private sector knows, growth requires investment.  (This is the side of “running the college like a business” that keeps getting ignored.) And in a setting with tenure, union contracts, and shared governance, heaven help the administration that tries to reallocate local budgets on a large scale quickly.  Between fixed costs, fixed policies, and extended timeframes for processes and procedures, the wiggle room is quite small.  Over time, of course, tenure, union contracts, and shared governance would come under attack, as colleges perceived delay -- correctly, in this context -- as existential threat.  I foresee major conflict, and its attendant costs.

Third, relatedly, it would have unintended consequences at the campus level.  Real improvements in student performance take time, and often come in fits and starts.  But fake improvements can be easy and quick.  There’s already an impressive history of K-12 districts cheating on high-stakes tests, so this isn’t without precedent.  If every college in a state is funded in part on its graduation rate relative to every other college, then each college has a strong incentive to encourage grade inflation.  Worse, if one campus encourages grade inflation and the others don’t, then the good ones will suffer while the cheater prospers.  Again, what public purpose is served by this is simply beyond me.

Colleges could also tweak their admissions procedures and/or programmatic offerings to avoid the highest-risk students.  This would be easy enough to do, and it would pay off in higher course completion rates and graduation rates.  It wouldn’t have to do anything conspicuous, either; right now, there’s a heroic amount of behind-the-scenes work that goes into helping students who need it the most.  Sacrifice some of that to budget cuts, let those students vanish, and the rates improve.  Of course, that would also fly in the face of community colleges’ reason to exist.  

Finally, “performance” on a campus level doesn’t make sense on a year-by-year basis.  A new curriculum can take a year to develop and two more years to produce its first graduates; in the meantime, the college could be absorbing three years’ worth of annual cuts that would, ironically enough, prevent the very change that would help it improve.  

If the state wants improved outcomes, however defined, it should think through what it would take to get them.  Yes, obviously, it would cost money; anyone with business experience knows that.  Growth requires investment, especially after years of cuts.  But it will also require collaboration, experimentation, and a level of focus that can’t be sustained when you’re stuck fighting zero-sum internal political battles.  Collaboration and experimentation are possible; indeed, they’re already happening.  There’s no sense in reframing the enemy from “ignorance” to “the campus two towns over.”