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Apparently, the state of Florida is looking at following up its ban on mandatory remediation with a funding cut. The logic is that if colleges aren’t teaching remedial courses anymore, what do they need all that money for?

As an administrator, I have a palm print on my head from reading about it. This is exactly the sort of response that makes constructive followup impossible.

I’ve heard mixed reports on the fallout of Florida’s ban. As near as I can tell, it led to improved pass rates and some allegations of grade inflation. (I don’t know how valid those allegations are.)  It also led to colleges reallocating much of the money that used to go into remedial classes. Now it goes to student support services for introductory classes. That’s likely a key part of the success of the changes. Draw down the resources that made success possible, and you will accomplish two things, both bad: you will increase the fail rate, and you will teach campus cynics that any new change, no matter how well grounded in the literature, should be resisted.

In the private sector, we take for granted that desired behaviors should be rewarded. But in the public sector, we think nothing of punishing good deeds. We need to rethink that.

“Performance funding,” for instance, is typically zero-sum or punitive. In the private sector, that would be considered a sign of incompetence. 

What might it look like if we rewarded success, instead of punishing it?

First, we’d enable it to happen in the first place. That would mean ensuring that campuses have enough money to meet their obligations, and a little discretionary money to take flyers on some new ideas. As any business manager knows, growth requires investment. And serious improvement, by definition, requires trying something different. 

Then, when something does work, support it. For example, some sort of institutional bonus for the number of graduates beyond an “expected” number -- perhaps with some sort of “profit sharing” for employees -- would put the state’s money where its mouth is. It would create the kind of reward for success that other parts of the economy take for granted. Align incentives and rewards with desired behaviors. That principle has been known to work.

In the time since Redesigning America’s Community Colleges came out, one of its key arguments has gone largely unacknowledged: decreasing the cost per graduate often involves increasing the cost per student. The social benefit is likely to outweigh, significantly, the upfront cost, but it won’t negate it. Success isn’t free.

As someone who works with faculty and staff on a daily basis, though, the long-term harm I see from Florida’s proposal is in confirming campus cynics.

Making forward progress on something as daunting, and important, as student success takes real effort. It requires collaboration, which requires building trust. Seeing the state so bluntly betray the colleges will simply confirm the cynics, and will make their position much stronger.  That will make further improvements much harder to implement and sustain. They won’t necessarily sabotage, but they’ll foot-drag, which has the same effect.  The damage could last for years.

Education is a long game. The payoff accrues over time. Small savings now, especially ones achieved through impulsive and sweeping gestures, bring tremendous opportunity costs. That’s especially true when they punish success. Florida’s community colleges are being notably successful at a difficult enterprise; the state will reap the benefits for years to come. Colleges teach, but so do legislatures. If colleges get slapped down for their troubles, I’d expect them to learn some harmful lessons from it.  


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