University faces funding change

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Students study in a hallway of the Health Sciences building Wednesday. Students could soon be affected by structure changes in college funding.

Nathan Carter

The way colleges and universities receive money from the state will change in the next couple of years, but it isn’t clear what the effect will be on Missouri Southern. 

A state committee is working on a performance-based funding system, according to Gov. Jay Nixon, who made the announcement at a summit meeting two weeks ago. Southern Vice President AJ Anglin said 13 schools attended the summit, adding that the reform is partly a continuation of last year’s program evaluations.

“We did that last year, and frankly, that was taken very seriously by the university community and the government felt very, very good about the results,” Anglin said. “This year’s summit had to do with the performance funding, so my take on it is the governor is very serious and the governor does have a lot of clout in making decisions in these directions.  It’s not only an interest or a personal desire or a political desire. The reality of it is he has the state mandate to do this, to really drive these kind of issues.”

University President Bruce Speck said legislators seem to be behind the governor’s decision due to both national and state concerns regarding higher education. It seems the state legislators could not find a reason for the old method of higher education funding.

“Somewhere in the misty past whatever was set, so it’s not based upon anything that we know of, so the legislators said this doesn’t make sense,” Speck said. “They said that we don’t have any basis for funding these schools (no apparent basis) and we need to have something to use for them. That was part of what’s happening with performance funding.”

The president said that nationwide, university tuition has exceeded the CPI and students are leaving with more debt. Nationally, colleges and universities are failing to prove that they are managing their money carefully and that drastic measures need to be taken.

“All these are kind of coalescing to raise issues about the affordability, the access and the management of higher education,” he said.

“These will leave administrators with difficult decisions to make in the next couple of years,” Anglin said.

“I want to be an optimist, but there’s nothing to assure us that the state is still not going to be still reducing, it’s just that this is a piece that they’re putting in saying if we could ever get to the point where the economy turns around and we have some additional moneys, the availability of it up to the maximum of whatever that is … you could get those moneys if you reach those objectives fully. 

“That’s just the world we live in,” he added. “There’s no magic bullet that’s going to get rid of difficult choices. There’s just nothing that’s out there. Good stewardship is still going to force us to make good decisions—tough decisions, but good decisions.”

At the center of the decision-making process are the performance indicators, which have yet to be determined by the state committee. Ideas have been tossed around, though nothing is set in stone yet. Anglin said he hopes to know by December, but cannot honestly state when the administration will know what to expect.

Some of the ideas concern Dr. Cliff Toliver, associate professor of English and philosophy, who attended the summit meeting.

“If one of the performance indicators is completion rate, so you lower the standards in a class and more students will complete it,” Toliver said. “It’s clear, right? It you’re being judged by how many students complete your class, you let more students complete it. What does that have to do with quality of education? 

“These indicators, being successful at them, seem to undercut quality of education. If you want more students to graduate, lower the requirements. More students will graduate. It’s clear. If you’re going to be paid, rewarded on that basis, do you see that there’s a problem here?”

Anglin said he hopes the school is able to avoid this problem; he expressed concern as well, but knows that cuts will continue even after the plan is implemented.

“Our issue is we don’t want to lose quality of the educational programs that we’re delivering to be lost,” Anglin said. “Administratively, I’m going to be spending my time and energy figuring out how we’re successful. If we’re not successful and have less money, the number of bad choices that you have to make is greater. I also want you to understand, in my opinion, that states in general are cutting back more and more to support higher education. This is not going to offset that cutback.”

All three men said quality is going to be difficult to determine, as well as to maintain. 

“Quality is the real problem here,” Speck said. “It’s one thing to say you’re graduating more students, but if you have to decrease the services you give to students or decrease the number of faculty you have and increase the number of students in classes, then that may be part of what happens, and most people are going to say that has a tendency to deteriorate quality, but if you graduate more people under those circumstances, you will have higher performance goals.” 

Another of the ideas presented as a possible indicator was emphasis on remedial classes. 

“There was to me a curious mention of the governor that a potential indicator would be an institution towards remediation or remedial education,” Tolliver said. 

“Now, on the one hand, it’s important that everyone learn, but this, to me, seems to confuse me a bit. Students that take remedial courses do not get college credit for those. It’s the public schools and the high schools and below that are responsible for doing that work. 

“Why should that be shifted to colleges and universities? Shouldn’t the emphasis for that be placed on their getting that remediation before them getting here? Sure, that can and should be part of the university curriculum, but students don’t get college credit for those courses. Why should a college’s effectiveness be judged for doing work that does not directly apply to the degree?”

A positive aspect of the plan is that all allocations will be based on new money rather than what is already allocated to the schools. 

“What I liked about this is what I heard about performance-based funding for the state of Missouri is that it is going to be based on additional income beyond whatever the current funding rate is,” Anglin said. “We’re not taking the pie or 25 percent of the current pie and dividing it by performance base. We’re only taking new moneys. That’s positive.”

The baseline for the project will be set in fiscal year 2013, which begins in June, the latest time the criteria can come out. 

Southern and the rest of the Missouri schools will then have to make their best attempts to abide by these criteria. From that point on, schools will have to abide by those criteria to receive additional funding.

“This year we are to get the indicators in place, if I understand the governor correctly, and next year we’ll be actually using those indicators,” Speck said. 

“I don’t think that next year there’ll be any new money, more likely a cut again for our appropriations, so I don’t have any inside word on that, but if you  look at the state budget, the last  I heard they’re about $450 million short, and when you have a shortfall like that, you don’t generally add; you have to cut, and I think there’ll probably be another cut for appropriations, and whatever that cut is, just add that to what we’ve had in the last few years, which is a 12.5 percent cut in our state appropriations.”

The threat is having to shift money if the University does not meet the standards set by the state.

“The direct impact would be that if we don’t satisfactorily meet particular levels in performance, we will not get the money set aside for us,” Speck said. “It has long-term implications in terms of your base deteriorating; it has long-term repercussions in terms of the money that you’re going to allocate internally to make sure that you meet those performance objectives. 

“It’s not like we have extra money somewhere, so it means we have to say what are we doing here, how do we either enhance that money by taking it somewhere else or what do we do with the budget so it does have long-term effects on how you run the budget. The game has changed.”

Administrators said decisions will not be taken lightly or made easily, and the decisions will have to be made to increase funding to state mandates and could increase workloads.

“When you start looking at how to internally reallocate, you begin making other priorities that you didn’t have in the past,” Speck said. “It would have an impact in terms of the money that’s available in particular areas. It certainly could increase the workload. When you internally reallocate, it means you would have to look at resources and go, ‘Hmm. I don’t think we need that position there, or we need it over here,’ so there are winners and losers in that. 

“If you lose dollars due to performance funding goals, then that means there’s going to be less money for the University to do the things we need, so that means if you have to say we missed that goal, that means we have to redouble our efforts to try to make that goal next time and have more focus on that, and that will mean  that everybody will realize that this is how we’re being funded in the future so that becomes a priority for us. It’s no longer do I like it or not like it. That’s how you’re getting funded, so the focus will clearly have to be on those performance indicators.”

Some of those indicators could be based on the individual missions of each of the schools. Speck said the base could be the themed semester program, while Anglin and Toliver leaned toward the international mission.

“The governor suggest that one or more performance indicators should be tied to the state missions of the schools, and our international mission, there would apparently be some need to measure our effectiveness in delivering international education,” Tolliver said. “I see that that as a good thing, that it would reinforce our international mission.”