SHEEO Wrap-Up | Confessions of a Community College Dean

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Wednesday’s conference was so jam-packed that I couldn’t get to it all for Thursday, so a few recaps and some general thoughts follow.

 

A while back – I’d offer an estimate, but COVID has discombobulated my sense of time – Nikki Edgecombe from the CCRC mentioned that they were looking at a project on estimating what it would cost to fund community colleges well enough to do their jobs well.  I was heartened to see that the project is under way.  Kate Shaw, of HCM (which is collaborating on the project) introduced the goals: to “cost out” the institutional practices that lead to student success, to determine how community college funding could deliver adequate and equitable resources, and to build the capacity of the field.  Worthy goals, I think, though the variability of contexts will present a non-trivial obstacle.

 

The rest of the panel consisted of folks from Texas, California, and Ohio, offering perspectives from each.  Joe May, the former chancellor of Dallas College, gave a helpful overview of the Texas system.  He noted that as with many performance funding systems, it’s an “allocation” system rather than a “funding” system.  In a “funding” system, if you do more of X, you get more funding accordingly.  In an “allocation” system, the total pie is fixed, and colleges compete with each other over the size of the slices.  When a performance funding system operates with a fixed total allocation, the colleges are in zero-sum competition with each other.  It’s possible that a college with improved outcomes might take a funding cut if it improved less quickly than the average.  

 

I kept waiting for the more fundamental objection of a death spiral.  If a college “underperforms” because it’s underfunded, then cutting its funding will only make matters worse.  In most other areas of public service, this would be too obvious to mention.  If a city experiences a wave of arson, it doesn’t respond by cutting funding to the fire department on the grounds that it’s underperforming.  As Nicholas Hillman argued in the mid-day plenary, markets are designed to create winners and losers; public service should not have losers.  Alas, connecting those dots was left to the audience.

 

To his credit, May correctly noted that the more dicey the finances, the more quickly a college moves from ‘visionary’ to ‘transactional.’  That’s where leadership matters the most.  When things are going well, visionary changes may seem unnecessary; when things are going badly, they may seem too risky.  That makes progress on equity more difficult than one would like.

 

Valerie Lundy-Wagner, of the California community college system, captured the dilemma well.  As she put it, “[u]nder what circumstances might we not want to fund an institution due to issues around a lack of equity?”  Until we can answer that, she suggested, equity concerns will take a back seat to more operational issues.  She finished by noting that “we fund programs, but we don’t change structures.”  Serious and sustained progress on equitable outcomes will require structural changes, but those are particularly hard to do when basic operating funding is both tenuous and tied to short-term outcomes.  

 

The critiques were on-point, but I’m still waiting for an answer to the first question.  In the absence of a baseline figure, performance-funding allocation systems are vulnerable to the objection that poor performance may reflect underfunding in the first place; if that’s true, then cutting funding will only make matters worse.  But if we can be reasonably confident that there’s enough money to do the job right, then performance funding on top of that could make sense.  

 

Charles Ansell of Complete College America and Tammy Warner of the Rhode Island system followed with a discussion that echoed some of the earlier Tennessee discussion.  Rhode Island developed a series of wraparound supports for students with the goal of improving completion rates, and they’ve been successful.  The twist in the Rhode Island case was the funding mechanism.  They had inserted the plan into the Governor’s budget, and looked forward to a healthy allocation with which to work, but it didn’t survive the legislative process.  So Warner and her colleague Omar Reyes walked us through the “braided” funding mechanism they developed.  In essence, it drew bits of funding from a series of different agencies.  That sounds simple enough, but anyone who has worked in bureaucracies knows how difficult that sort of bridge-building can be; the systems weren’t built to work that way.  I was impressed.

 

Finally, I caught a panel on an ongoing project to define a college completion fund at the federal level.  Several groups are working together on it, and the panel reflected that.  Will Del Pilar represented the Education Trust, John Lane represented SHEEO, Kelly McManus (who chaired the panel) represented Arnold Ventures, and Alex Mayer represented MDRC.  

 

I’ll admit having been surprised by this panel.  When I read “completion funds,” I envisioned something like Marion Technical College’s program by which students who complete 30 credits successfully get tuition waived for the remaining 30.  That wasn’t this.  This was about guiding a possible federal project.  Lane noted that they’re particularly interested in interventions that are “election-proof,” so they can survive changes of administration; that struck me as wise.  

 

A spirited exchange ensued with the audience around the ethics of using federal funds for institutional loan forgiveness.  I would expect any federal intervention to make some clear points on that front.

 

As with the CCRC/HCM panel, this panel was more an announcement of work in progress than an analysis of something completed.  My ears perked up at the mention that MDRC has issued a series of sixteen short strategy documents; that sounds like some near-term reading.  

 

I had hoped to catch the panel on mental health on Thursday morning, but flight plans didn’t allow it.

 

My thanks to everyone who suggested the shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo’s.  It didn’t happen – with two out-of-state tuitions to pay this year, fancy dining is pretty much out of the question – but I appreciated the tip.  Next time around.

 

As with many conferences, some of the highlights were the hallway or breakfast conversations.  Meeting folks from around the country, it quickly became clear just how different the ground rules are in different states.  Some states have community college “districts,” like school districts.  Some have local dedicated tax levies that last for years at a time.  Some have local funding, which typically comes with some level of local control.  But even with all of that, I was glad to see a sense of shared purpose.  It was probably the least internally competitive conference I can remember attending.  There’s virtue in that.

 

Next week, back to the regularly scheduled blog.

 

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