WASHINGTON -- Educators who gathered on Capitol Hill Monday lauded President Obama’s plan to fund state-based initiatives to improve college completion rates, and urged Congress to incorporate it in the forthcoming federal budget .
Among the new programs the administration has proposed  in its 2009-10 budget is the “College Access and Completion Fund.” This program would spend $2.5 billion, over the course of five years, on supporting state efforts to boost the college completion rates of low-income students. A to-be-determined evaluative component would assess these many efforts in order to pinpoint the most successful ones.
The proposed federal grant program and some of the innovative college completion projects it could help support were among the key topics discussed at a panel discussion of educators held by the College Board Monday.
Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation, said he was encouraged by the inclusion of the “College Access and Completion Fund” in the president’s proposed budget. He argued that only through “self-conscious efforts to experiment” would colleges learn how to stem the tide of dropouts. This program, he said, showed federal restraint and “respect for local knowledge,” noting that what might work in one area of the country might not always work in another.
“You have to get excited about your failures,” McPherson said of many college completion initiatives. “That’s how you get better.”
A number of the panelists expressed their support for performance-based funding -- a model that would appropriate state dollars for higher education based on course completion and graduation rates instead of enrollment figures. Shifting to this method of appropriation, they argued, would incentivize institutions to improve completion rates.
Stanley G. Jones, commissioner of the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, touted his state’s effort  to adopt performance-based funding incentives slowly, over the course of several years and budget cycles. Currently, only a small percentage of the state’s appropriations are based on student outcomes. In addition to base funds determined by enrollments, Indiana’s funding formula provides additional dollars to institutions depending on how many more degrees they award from year to year. Jones noted that in the coming fiscal year, the state is planning also to consider course completion rates when allotting incentive funds.
This gradual transition, Jones said, is integral to changing institutional focus from enrollments to outcomes and avoiding pitting institutions against one another. By contrast, Ohio legislators are currently debating  whether to shift completely to this style of funding next fiscal year, without any transition.
“Only by shifting funding cycles can you make people pay attention,” said Jones, adding that public institutions in his state will have to find a way to lobby for additional funds in the context of their graduation rates.
Although this funding model is geared toward four-year institutions, there was some talk on the panel of encouraging a slightly altered formula to improve community college completion rates.
Richard M. Rhodes, president of El Paso Community College, said there has been discussion of introducing such a model in Texas. Instead of basing funding strictly on course completion and graduation rates -- as this would bankrupt many two-year institutions, considering their poor figures -- such an altered formula would award funds to community colleges based on their ability to improve these rates from year to year, and to attract low-income students.
Rhodes has also encouraged another legislative reform in Texas, this one aimed at improving completion rates at his community college. Currently, the state finances remedial education programs as normal, 16-week courses. El Paso, however, has had more success with students who enter short, two- or three-week remedial courses to prepare for college placement tests. As a result, Rhodes is lobbying the state to endorse non-course based funding for all developmental education programs so that his institution can direct money to a system it has found to encourage retention.
Representatives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and MDRC, a social policy research organization, were also on hand to discuss their ongoing efforts  to improve college completion. Following up on a study it did in pre-Katrina Louisiana , MDRC is working on a nationwide study to examine the longterm effects of performance-based scholarship programs among groups of low-income students. Initial findings from this study should be available by the end of the year.
Debate about the federal budget continues on Capitol Hill, following last week’s non-binding blueprints passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate.