• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Funding-Based Performance

Payoff requires investment.

October 8, 2019

Did you know that additional resources can enable better performance?

It’s true! And we have a national meta-analysis to prove it.

New America just published a rigorous look at the Obama administration’s TAACCCT grant. I’ll admit to some pride in this one, because when I was at Holyoke, we had a TAACCCT grant, the director of which reported to me. (She was one of my very best hires.) The Trade Adjustment Act Community College Career Training grant was intended to incentivize community colleges to build stackable career-oriented programs that could get students into decent-paying jobs quickly.

According to the numbers, it worked. Students who went through TAACCCT-funded programs did better on measures of completion and wage gains than students who didn’t.

Having lived through the grant, I can attest that having a point person to coordinate local efforts, reach out to local employers and navigate campus politics made a major difference. Dedicated student advising mattered tremendously, especially with students whose previous exposure to higher education was spotty, limited or nonexistent. Just being in constant dialogue with the local workforce investment board mattered.

I’ll defer to the report itself for the statistical details. To me, the most relevant point is the most basic one.

Performance-based funding may be all the rage, but there’s something to be said for funding-based performance. Performance requires funding. Underfunding colleges, and then punishing them for the logical outcome of underfunding, is just sadism.

To see the logic, apply it to any other public service. There’s an arson outbreak? Quick, cut funding for the fire department, because it obviously isn’t doing its job! Crime epidemic? Cut the police! Viral pandemic? Shut down the hospitals!

Of course, we don’t do those things, because they would be stupid and self-defeating.

TAACCCT funding wasn’t open-ended. We had to report -- a lot -- and the rules were as restrictive as federal grant rules tend to be. Getting the funding in the first place required a plan, and any changes to the plan had to be approved.

But the idea that investment produces results -- which is considered common sense in the private sector -- still strikes many as radical when applied to the public sector. It shouldn’t.

Education as a sector is in the awkward position of not capturing the full value of the gains it produces. From a societal perspective, that’s terrific -- it adds value to the economy. But from an institutional perspective, it makes applying a straightforward market logic a bad fit. To the extent that colleges internalize market logic and attempt to capture a slightly larger fraction of that value, by raising tuition, they catch hell for it. I understand why -- as the parent of a current student, I really understand why -- but the answer isn’t to eviscerate education. It’s to fund education as the public good that it is.

So thank you, New America, for proving in yet another specific case something we should know as a general rule. If we want public returns, we need public investment. It works.


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