More than 30 states now provide performance funding for higher education, with several more states seriously considering it. Under PF, state funding for higher education is not based on enrollments and prior-year funding levels. Rather, it is tied directly to institutional performance on such metrics as student retention, credit accrual, degree completion and job placement. The amount of state funding tied to performance indicators ranges from less than 1 percent in Illinois to as much as 80 to 90 percent in Ohio and Tennessee.
Performance funding has received strong endorsements from federal and state elected officials and influential public policy groups and educational foundations. The U.S. Department of Education has urged states to “embrace performance-based funding of higher education based on progress toward completion and other quality goals.” And a report by the National Governors Association declared, “Currently, the prevailing approach for funding public colleges and universities … gives colleges and universities little incentive to focus on retaining and graduating students or meeting state needs …. Performance funding instead provides financial incentives for graduating students and meeting state needs.”
But with all this state activity and national support, does performance funding actually work? As we report in a book being published this week, Performance Funding for Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press), the answer is both yes and no.
Based on extensive research we conducted in three states with much-discussed performance funding programs -- Indiana, Ohio, and Tennessee -- we find evidence for the claims of both those who champion performance funding and those who reject it. In keeping with the arguments of PF champions, we find that performance funding has resulted in institutions making changes to their policies and programs to improve student outcomes -- whether by revamping developmental education or altering advising and counseling services.
Underpinning those changes have been increased institutional efforts to gather data on their performance and to change their institutional practices in response.
But we often cannot clearly determine to what degree performance funding is driving those changes. Many of the colleges we studied stated they were already committed to improving student outcomes before the advent of performance funding. Moreover, in addition to PF, the states often are simultaneously pursuing other policies -- such as initiatives to improve developmental education or establish better student pathways into and through higher education -- that push institutions in the same direction as their PF programs. As a result, it is nearly impossible to determine the distinct contribution of PF to many of those institutional changes.
Meanwhile, supporting the arguments of the PF detractors, we have not found conclusive evidence that performance funding results in significant improvements in student outcomes -- and, in fact, we’ve discovered that it produces substantial negative side effects. In reviewing the research literature on PF impacts, we find that careful multivariate studies -- which compare states with and without performance funding and control for a host of factors besides PF that influence student outcomes -- largely fail to find a significant positive impact of performance funding on student retention and degree attainment. Those studies do find some evidence of effects on four-year college graduation and community college certificates and associate degrees in some states and some years. However, those results are too scattered to allow anyone to conclude that performance funding is having a substantial impact on student outcomes.
Various organizational obstacles may help explain that lack of effect. Many institutions enroll numerous students who are not well prepared for college. In addition, state performance metrics often do not align well with the missions of broad-access institutions such as community colleges, and states do not adequately support institutional efforts to better understand where they are failing and how best to respond.
Even if performance funding ultimately proves to significantly improve student outcomes, the fact remains that it has serious unintended impacts that need to be addressed. Faced both by state financial pressures to improve student outcomes and substantial obstacles to doing so easily, institutions are tempted to game the system. By reducing academic demands and restricting the enrollment of less-prepared students, broad-access colleges can retain and graduate more students, but only at the expense of an essential part of their social mission of helping disadvantaged students attain high-quality college degrees. Policy makers should address such negative side effects, or they could well vitiate any apparent success that performance funding achieves in improving student outcomes.
In the end, performance funding, like so many policies, is complicated and even contradictory. To the question of whether it works, our answer has to be both yes and no. It does prod institutions to better attend to student outcomes and to substantially change their academic and student-service policies and programs. However, performance funding has not yet conclusively produced the student outcomes desired, and it has engendered serious negative side effects. The question is whether, with further research and careful policy making, it is possible for performance funding to emerge as a policy that significantly improves student retention, graduation and job placement without paying a stiff price in reduced academic quality and restricted admission of disadvantaged students. Time will tell.