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How Not to Fund a University

The following is a guest opinion piece I wrote for the Idaho Statesman newspaper in Boise Idaho (published April 19, 2016). The article is in response to a lengthy piece the newspaper published on the growing national trend of states funding their state universities and colleges based on graduation rates of individual institutions.

On April 7 the Idaho Statesman published another quality article on local issues, “Driving toward a new way to fund colleges.” I would like to present another opinion on this nationwide trend. The article describes the suggested shift in funding higher education from proposals stating the needs of the institution to funding based on outcomes.

The foremost being considered is graduation rates at each institution. This would create a graduation-numbers competition between universities and colleges. The article states : “State officials say [the] public wants better proof of their investment in higher education,” and “it makes intuitive sense for us to align the way we are funding the institutions with what we need from our investment as a state.”

In my 30 years teaching in higher education I was fortunate to often be dealing with students on a one-to-one basis. This allowed me to be part of their education and personal growth for four or five years. When graduation came it was a joyous event. I also had many students who in one or even two years came to another understanding. That understanding was they were not ready for college or that college was simply not right for them, and they discontinued their time at the university. This was often not a matter of failure but reasoned decisions.

Should funding for higher ed institutions be determined by graduation rates, these students would likely be pressured to remain at the institution even though it was not in their best interest, incurring tens of thousands of dollars in debt they would labor decades paying off. Teachers might be encouraged to keep students in programs even though it was not what the student wants or needs. This could well reach the point of the lowering standards to help unqualified students graduate. Administrators could subvert quality of education to increase graduation numbers. One only has to look at the many failures of No Child Left Behind to see the layers of problems in outcome based funding.

Structuring higher education on a business model is a trend that has been evolving for decades. University administration in league with corporate donors have created institutions whose primary role is job training rather than higher education. At one time a higher education was structured to prepare students to be well-rounded, critical-thinking people to make our world a better place and not just to make money. Higher education should prepare people for professions, but that is only part of their role in society.

I know there are institutions that still strive for a rounded education, but they are being transformed under the business model that is dominating our universities and colleges. The true value of higher ed to the individual, and the society, cannot be measured with quantifiable outcomes to create a spreadsheet of investments and profits. Outcome-based funding and especially graduation-rate funding will hurt those who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of higher education: the students.

Mark W. McGinnis resides in Boise. He is an artist and emeritus professor of art at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D.

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