Choose New Performance Standards Wisely

Today, the Montana University System (MUS) Board of Regents will meet to discuss, among other things, performance standards that will likely determine portions of funding for Montana universities in FY15. The standards won’t be discussed in earnest until May, but students should begin paying attention to this difficult and important decision.

The standards are pending the passage of the College Affordability Plan, part of HB 2. The plan has powerful backing in the capital, and seems likely to pass without significant revision. Currently, the plan would allocate $7.5 million to the MUS if performance standards are met in two years, part of the $30 million increase in baseline funding the MUS is requesting based on inflation.

It may be too late to change during this legislative cycle, but next time legislators allocate performance standard funding, they should not take the money out of baseline funding but should instead add it on. The current legislation uses the $7.5 million as a threat, not a bonus.

At first glance, allocating monies based on statistical measures which could provide an incomplete portrait of educational effectiveness, has a ring of the unpopular No Child Left Behind policy. However, a majority of states in the U.S. are using performance-based university funding to some degree. That indicates university performance funding isn’t the story of a terrible top-down education decision, but rather the story of a slowly spreading approach that has been working for over 30 years.

As a further reassurance, this funding only accounts for 5 percent of the MUS budget. This is in stark contrast to states like Tennessee, where all university funding is determined by performance standards.

When establishing specific performance metrics, the Regents will likely choose data that is already being gathered, or is not terribly intensive to gather. Still, it will be very important what is chosen. Moving forward, regents, administrators and students must remember that university goals must determine metrics — metrics should never determine university goals.

Minute differences can have diverse repercussions. For example, increasing the number of Montanan students graduating from MSU could make Montana more economically competitive. However, if the university aimed to increase the rate of graduation, administrators could end up gaming the system by graduating the bottom of a class that otherwise would have needed to stay to finish their degrees. That unintended consequence could devalue an MSU degree.

In this week’s Monday Morning Memo, President Cruzado said the process for developing performance funding will be “open and inclusive.” That promise is a two-way street. Administrators need to find meaningful and creative ways to make sure students are aware of how this small and qualified group is shaping our university’s future. That doesn’t mean mentioning a meeting two weeks in advance in a Monday Morning Memo, it means putting up fliers on campus or using social media in ways that catch student attention.

On the other side of the street, students must give administrators an hour of their time, if just once this year. Without the involvement of average students, not just senators, this important change in the way money moves in Montana will be in the hands of a select few.