News Column

Could Funding Be Performance Based?

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If it were up to the leaders at Odessa College, the proposal to base 10 percent of state funding on its performance should already be put into place.

The outcomes-based system that President Barack Obama has touted would award colleges in Texas more funding that hinges on several factors that translate to a high-performing college. Things such as enrollment, low drop-out rates, timely degree completion and critical workforce needs are some of the proposed metrics by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Don Wood, Odessa College's vice president for institutional research and effectiveness, is on a committee that's been meeting about the proposal for performance-based funding in Texas. The last Legislative session had plans to alter state funding by linking it to performance, but it failed. However, House Bill 9 passed, which asked for new plans to be submitted for the 2013 session.

"It's a very positive thing that's going on in Texas," Wood said.

He didn't want to speculate whether, by the end of the session, public higher education in Texas would use performance-based funding, but he said it's a hot topic right now.

"It would not be surprising to me that coming out of this session, we have something like a 10 percent performance-based funding model," he said.

Texas is one of a handful of states that have considered a performance-based model for higher education. Eighteen states are having formal discussions on the topic, and 11 states have performance-based funding in place, according to research published last month by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

UTPB President David Watts said he believes the concept of performance-based funding is "right on target," but he is concerned about how it might pan out for universities such as UTPB that have a vastly different student population than universities such as Texas Tech, where most graduates complete degrees in four years.

Watts said around 85 percent of UTPB students have at least one job and often have family obligations, which puts them on a different track. "Nontraditional" students are almost exclusively whom UTPB caters to and Watts is hopeful that the Legislature will listen to all sides involved.

Most colleges and universities in the United States receive state funding based on enrollment numbers, though many -- including Texas -- are now considering changing the model to be based on the number of students who complete their degrees, according to the research.

Watts says it boils down to being the student's choice to decide to stay in college or leave, especially for older students who have to consider paying for school as well as providing for a family.

"In our area of Texas, which has the lowest unemployment rate in the United States, people have many job opportunities so they might be blowing aside completing college. It's just a real opportunity," Watts said about the oilfield industry. "We're just not sure how long it will last."

Under a performance-based system, community colleges and technical schools would earn "momentum points" for the number of students annually completing each of the following: developmental education, gateway courses, college credit hour attainment, credentials awarded and transfers to a four-year institution.

Funding would be allocated to community colleges or technical schools in proportion to its share of the total momentum points statewide, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures research.

"Our enrollment is going up, which is very exciting in this full-employment economy. Employment rates are going up. That is rare. Students are graduating in record numbers now. They're doing better than ever in the classroom. Strong funding (from the state) would allow us to continue to advance the great progress we're making," Wood said.

Speculating on how state funding might shake out for OC is all school officials can do at this point. Last August, OC approved a budget of $38.4 million, a 1 percent increase of state funding. In 2011, they had to cut 16 percent and in 2010 the budget fell by even more to $35.3 million.

The consensus among public higher education officials is to not reduce funding, as one might imagine, said Tanya Hughes, OC's chief of staff.

"We hope they hold the same line. The hope is to at the very least maintain the level of funding," she said.

She added that's it's simply too early to tell, but they're staying upbeat.

Watts, who was traveling back to Odessa from Austin on Thursday, said a staff member at the Capitol earlier that day gave him a discerning description of last session compared with the 83rd session.

"'(Last session was) very depressing. Very sad. This time, there's much more optimism. It's really quite busy. It has a whole different feel than this time two years ago,' she said. We're all very hopeful and optimistic," Watts said.

$10,000 DEGREE ALIVE AND WELL

The effort to provide college at lower and lower costs continues for UTPB and OC -- placating the suggestion of Gov. Rick Perry in his State of the State Address in 2012 to offer bachelor degrees at a rate of $10,000.

Just a year ago in May, UTPB became the first university in Texas to offer a $10,000 four-year degree program. The Texas Science Scholar Program was approved at the University of Texas System Board of Regents meeting in Austin, giving students the opportunity to obtain degrees in areas of geology, chemistry, computer science, information systems and math, and saving students almost $4,000 per year.

In January, UTPB began offering an online-only completion degree if a student already holds an associate's degree in applied science for $5,000. The $5,000 cost covers two years of school, as opposed to the average student who is paying $3,000 a semester. Many of the students who had enrolled were petroleum employees looking to advance their career, according to Raj Desai, the chairman of the Engineering and Technology Programs.

"You can work in the oilfield and while you're sitting at the well site, take your courses, do it on your schedule, on your time," Watts said.

OC is working toward that end of reducing costs in several ways -- from increasing the number of dual credit classes available to high school students to slashing a student's budget for textbooks by providing online resources instead.

"It's obviously a worthwhile expense," Hughes said about paying for college. "Students can actually obtain an associate's degree when they graduate high school. ... We are doing our part to support that, and really beginning to do some innovative things."

Wood said OC is on the leading edge of finding ways to reduce the cost of college for students, and much of those costs are tied up in textbooks.

"We have faculty members using technology to address that problem, by providing free course content from online and putting it together" for students, Wood said.

"We're committed to doing that in every class -- though it will take awhile for every class."

As for dual credit classes for high school students, OC is looking into a student success course that officials hope will improve graduation rates by teaching students early on what it takes to be successful and go onto college or a technical school. More than 1,000 high school students take dual credit classes each semester, Hughes said.

A statistic OC is proud of: 13 counties in Texas are offering dual credit through Odessa College.

"Even if they are nowhere near a college they can take a college-level course," Hughes said.

SEN. SELIGER FILES HIGHER EDUCATION BILLS

State Senator and Chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) filed the several bills on Tuesday, which focus on maximizing efficiency and streamlining higher education policy.

--Senate Bill 490: Relating to Texas Equalization Grant eligibility, will streamline the TEG program by requiring all graduate students currently receiving a TEG to meet the program's current requirements. Additionally it allows undergraduate students who have received a TEG under the program's previous requirements two additional years to graduate. This change in law will allow approximately 50 new students to receive a TEG, with no additional funding.

--Senate Bill 496: Joint authored with Sen. Kevin Eltife and relating to Capital Project Approval Authority, eliminates unnecessary levels of bureaucracy when institutions of higher education seek to receive authority for capital construction projects not funded with state dollars. By transferring approval authority from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to the individual Boards of Regents, this bill minimizes the costs associated with receiving approval for construction while maintaining adequate oversight.

--Senate Bill 497: Joint authored with Sen. Judith Zaffirini and relating to associate's degree semester credit hours, caps the number of semester credit hours necessary to receive an associate's degree at levels required by accreditation or licensure. By making uniform the number of semester credit hours needed to receive an associate's degree while respecting accreditation and licensure, this bill helps to ensure that students receive adequate academic advising and minimizes the loss of credit when students transfer to a four-year institution.

--Senate Bill 498: Joint authored with Sen. Dan Patrick and relating to Reverse Transfer, reduces the number of semester credit hours required for notification of associate's degree eligibility from 90 to 60. This bill requires that four-year institutions notify community colleges when a transfer student achieves 60 semester credit hours so that the community college may award that student an associate's degree. By lowering the threshold from 90 to 60 this bill ensures that more students receive associates degrees, which are integral to Texas' future workforce needs.

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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