Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Peak PBF?

Apparently, Massachusetts has dropped performance-based funding for community colleges.  I’m hopeful that this will be the start of a trend.

Performance-based funding sounds good intuitively.  If you don’t think about it very hard, it sounds like it would reward good performance and punish bad.  But it’s a terrible fit for community colleges.

At a really basic level, community colleges were never built to compete with each other.  They were built to serve local geographic areas. If a community college outside of Oakland scores well, will students from Los Angeles take notice and move there?  If not, why pit them against each other?

To the extent that it reflects the demographics of the students who attend a given college, it will tend to reward the affluent and punish the poor.  Over time, it pushes some colleges into death spirals. Given that most areas are served only by one or two community colleges, institutional death spirals don’t benefit anybody.  It’s not like a local restaurant drawing customers from another local restaurant, driving the latter out of business. It’s more like the one restaurant in town going out of business.  

In a more perfect world, public colleges and universities would cooperate with each other.  But when funding is competitive, cooperation becomes a harder sell. That’s already somewhat true with students; making it true of operating subsidies as well makes matters worse.

I’ve never seen the logic of PBF applied to police or fire departments.  “Crime went up in East Wherever. Clearly, the EWPD is doing a bad job. Let’s cut its funding until crime drops again!”  “Arson outbreak in East Wherever? Cut funding to EWFD until it stops.” The stupidity is obvious enough there. But somehow, people who would see the flaws in those will argue, straight-faced, that a community college serving lots of low-income students would do a better job if only it had a lot less money.

Even the argument from ‘incentive’ misses the point.  A few weeks ago, I attended a “visioning” conference hosted by the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.  The point was to look at trends ten years out. One speaker from the MDRC gave a talk extolling the success of the ASAP program at CUNY.  In q-and-a, I mentioned that while ASAP is impressive, it’s also expensive; we simply don’t have the resources to try something like that at scale.  I asked if the research had found inexpensive ways to improve results significantly at scale. He couldn’t name any.

Aside from cloaking punitive austerity in the Calvinist moralism of the marketplace, advocates of PBF tend to take a cartoonishly dark view of the people who manage colleges.  They don’t take seriously the idea that most of us are motivated, in significant ways, by the mission. That’s why we willingly take far lower salaries than our counterparts in the four-year world.  Hell, adjunct faculty work for vanishingly small compensation, in part because teaching means something to them. Cutting their pay even more wouldn’t be an incentive to higher performance; it would be a kick in the teeth.  

For that matter, I rarely see the logic of PBF applied to, say, tax cuts.  Logic suggests that if it works in one direction, it would work in the other.  But that would involve separating the idea from the ideology that spawned it, without which it wouldn’t survive.

Kudos to Massachusetts for letting a bad idea die.  Here’s hoping states flirting with the idea take notice, and states caught up in it start to ask some questions.  We don’t need performance-based funding; we need funding in order to perform.