[The Montana Professor 25.1, Fall 2014 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

MP Interview: Tyler Trevor, Deputy Commissioner for Planning and Analysis, Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, Helena, Montana

Montana Professor interviewed Deputy Commissioner Trevor about Montana's Performance Funding initiative.

In view of the many complex and interrelated factors that are in play in students' success—including factors in the lives of the students themselves and the changing social and economic forces driving who applies to college and when—how is it that the performance of an institution is being singled out for analysis?

—Tyler Trevor

Instead of an institution being singled out, the entire Montana University System has been challenged to improve the educational attainment level of our citizenry in a major way. I think we should be proud of the confidence the state has expressed in us through that charge. Our faculty and staff in the MUS are amazing in their dedication and commitment to students. Still, in my experience, the public demand in Montana and the nation for accountability, productivity, and efficiency in higher education is at an all-time high. I believe every legislator who voted to increase funding for higher education did so with the expectation that we will boost Montana's educational attainment level in a significant way.

I know that our faculty and staff are familiar with measurements of student success and institutional accountability. The concept is not new. In fact, it is at the heart of our accreditation process that seeks to ensure institutions are striving to fulfill their missions. I could give many other examples aimed at communicating and improving student success at the institutional level, such as the Student-Right-to-Know Act in the early 1990s or individual campus strategic plans found throughout our system or even the new College Scorecard.

No one doubts that undergraduate retention and completion are important. We all want our students to stay in college if they can and ultimately graduate. But aren't there other, and some might argue more important, aspects of how good a job a university is doing: things like quality of the learning experience, opportunities for undergraduate research, engagement with the world? Granted, these things are notoriously difficult to measure, but isn't it unfair to make retention and completion the metrics that are being focused on?

I think it's important we remember why we are pursuing performance funding in the first place. Our nation and state have a goal of increasing the percentage of population that holds a higher education credential from 40% to 60%. That is an impossible goal if we don't strive to measure and increase completions. The relatively small piece of our total budget that is tied to performance funding or outcomes-based funding is simply an incentive for each institution to graduate more students and receive a reward for doing so.

It seems to me that retention and completion are good metrics for our performance funding model because they are basic indicators of student success. They can be measured quantitatively in a uniform fashion for all institutions within the system. I think we have faculty support for a manageable set of unambiguous metrics that are difficult to game, so to speak, and that reflect the priorities of our completion agenda. They also provide a good mix between progress and outcome, enabling campuses that may have a difficult time of increasing the number of completions in the short term to make progress by improving retention rates.

Recently, the Board of Regents approved a set of metrics to be used in 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years. The metrics, which were developed by working groups of faculty and staff, include retention and completion for all campuses, but also include additional metrics that work to reinforce mission differentiation. For instance, at MSU and UM both graduate degree completions and research expenditures were adopted as mission specific metrics.

The faculty and staff who worked on this metric development noted some important points. As data gathering at the state and national level becomes more sophisticated and consistent, additional metrics that more fully connect outcome measurements to measures of quality may be considered. Those may include measures of scholarly productivity that go beyond research dollars. They may also include measures of the integration of discovery, learning, and outreach activities that demonstrate value-added benefits of service to the community and to Montana. Or, they may include post-graduate success as indicated by employment or subsequent graduate enrollment.

It's all well and good to say that we should all have an internal motivation to increase students' progress through college, but PF models suggest that universities are not trying hard enough, and if they don't try harder, it's going to cost them; this breeds insecurity and even fear. Is this a good approach to improving higher education?

I firmly believe we are fortunate in Montana to have faculty and staff who go the extra mile to help students succeed. We will continue to involve faculty in decision making and we will keep sharing information about the purpose and progress of performance funding. I believe that kind of good communication will provide anyone who might feel emotions of insecurity or fear with the necessary data and context to grow more confident in performance funding. The Performance Funding Steering Committee is the primary work group tasked with providing recommendations to the Regents for outcomes-based funding. Members of that group have worked hard to communicate the directions and nuisances of this initiative, and they all recognize there is more work to be done.

Our short-term model allocates 5% of state funding for campuses in Fiscal Year 2015, about $7.5 million, toward performance outcomes. I think it's important to remember that the emphasis is on continuous improvement rather than hitting specific targets or benchmarks. Also, campuses are measured against their own prior performance, rather than comparisons to other campuses. I think progress is important and a reasonable goal. For the completions metric, all campuses in the MUS made improvement over the previous years and received additional funding. In the retention metric, two-thirds of the campuses made progress. For campuses that did not make progress, a "stop-loss zone" was employed, whereby campus allocations were incrementally decreased in relation to the amount of decline within a given metric.

A common concern that is raised about PF is that it is inevitable that faculty and deans will feel pressure to cut corners and lower standards in order to help meet PF expectations. Lower D and F rates in courses will certainly help more students toward completion, and that is simply one of the things that will need to happen in order for a university to have the best shot at PF based funding. Doesn't essentially requiring faculty members, departments, and deans to do more to help students be successful in their courses and programs just to meet PF metrics seem unrealistic?

I think we need to emphasize that we have always had a certain kind of performance funding. All of the funding in the past has hinged on enrollment without regard to student success. If the campus could show there's a student there, the money followed, no questions asked. Faculty members are the first and last producers and preservers of educational quality. Under the old way of doing things, it could be argued that institutions could try to keep students on campus longer than necessary, protracting the time to degree, in order to receive and maintain funding. I don't buy that argument because I know the credibility and integrity of our faculty and our institutions is tremendously strong. Similarly, with a performance tie to funding, it could be argued that faculty will now try to ramrod students through college with less academic rigor and quality. I don't buy that argument, either, because our faculty have demonstrated commitment to quality and high standards time and time again.

Maintaining high-quality institutions and educational excellence is the most important consideration of any initiative in the MUS. The topic of quality has permeated almost every discussion on performance funding I've been involved in, and it is a topic the Regents and Commissioner take very seriously. Fundamentally, we don't believe that faculty, who are the keepers and guardians of academic standards, will allow quality to diminish due to performance funding.

It is well-known that PF has been abandoned in some states. Many share the perspective that it is a fundamentally flawed system. Why has Montana adopted it?

As I mentioned earlier, the MUS has tied funding to performance for more than 30 years, with the sole metric being enrollment. Now, rather than allocating 100% of our state funding based on input or enrollments, we've committed a relatively small proportion of 5% of our budget to a few measures of progress and outcome. Already we've seen an increased interest and dialog around the topics of retention and completion, complementing our long-term commitment to access in our funding model with a small focus on success. In short, we've improved our state appropriation allocation methodology by doing a better job of paying for what we value.

I've talked about the national and state goals of increasing the educational attainment level of our citizenry. Additionally, an important catalyst that led to the MUS committing to performance funding in the 2013 Legislative Session was the College Affordability Plan—the "CAP." The CAP is an agreement between the MUS and the Governor to implement a resident-student tuition freeze for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 academic years if certain funding levels were provided for by the Montana Legislature. In order to obtain the funding levels, legislators indicated that we needed to do more than just show up with our hands out. We needed to use some of the new funding to drive outcomes. The MUS committed to performance funding, and as a result, received one of our largest-ever biennial increases in state appropriations. It is a $50-million increase over the previous biennium.

True, some of the first generation performance funding models from the 1990s and early 2000s have been abandoned or significantly modified. Some of the states that have abandoned their old models have adopted new models that typically contain a relatively small number of outcome-based metrics that are easy to understand and measure, and are often linked to the public agenda for increased completions. Today there are 26 states working toward some form of outcomes-based funding. The metrics are limited in number and reflect mission differences between institutions. Funding is often embedded within the base rather than reliant on additional funding. Some states have discovered a serendipitous element to the effort of linking funding to performance goals. Those states discovered that the underlying dialog and collaboration that is necessary to make the link has generated new interest and support among state leaders outside higher education.

[The Montana Professor 25.1, Fall 2014 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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