State performance metrics show new focus in education

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Florida is one of 26 states total that currently imposes performance based funding metrics at four-year institutions. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Two years after implementation, Florida state performance metrics within the state university system are still carrying a carefully articulated dialogue.

The metrics were the topic of discussion at a USF faculty senate meeting in January, with special attention given to excess credit hours.

The number of students graduating with excess credit hours is one of the many metrics the Florida Board of Governors (BOG) crafted and the Florida legislature uses to assess universities for funding.

At the meeting, faculty members were critical of the idea that students should stick to classes within their major in order to avoid accumulating excess hours, as was suggested on university promotional materials.

When the dialogue really begins, however, the conversation strays away from excess credit hours to the metrics themselves, then to state funding, before finally settling on a bigger idea: a workforce mentality some faculty feel has taken root not only in the Florida legislature, but nationwide.

“Many of the things that we now take for granted as public, … they started to become public in the 19th century,” Gregory McColm, associate professor of mathematics and statistics, said.

McColm spoke of “the elephant in the room,” that the Florida legislature and the nation have moved away from a focus on funding higher education. He feels legislature mentality has also changed.

“Here’s a bit of ancient advice,” McColm said. “Don’t worry about getting your first job. Worry about advancing in that job. Worry about keeping that job … That’s why you need an education.”

The metrics, McColm feels, aren’t very concerned with that sort of focus. Some of the metrics are discouraging for a liberal arts education by shifting the focus away from taking a variety of courses and trying to get students out of the university and into the workforce. McColm doesn’t feel like this is ideal for long-term development.

“This is your great chance,” McColm said. “You can explore the world.”

He does, however, understand the place USF administration is in because of the metrics. A portion of university funding is tied to USF’s performance on state metrics.

“The state has put (Provost Ralph Wilcox) in a box,” McColm said.

Dwayne Smith, senior vice provost for faculty affairs, said he feels that a tremendous amount of pressure comes from the state with these metrics. There is a great deal of competition between universities when it comes to getting funding.

“Every year we have to stay very focused (on) how we’re performing on these, knowing that there’s actually a considerable amount of money at stake,” Smith said.

The Florida BOG unveiled its performance metrics in January of 2014. They had been in development for several years before that, using what the BOG considered to be the priorities for students and state universities.

Traditionally, universities were funded based on size. For Brittany Davis, communications director for the state university system of Florida, the shift that comes from the performance metrics is a shift to quality.

“(The state government) wanted to really place an emphasis on quality and on making sure that students are able to achieve a high-quality education and do so in a timely manner and that the benefits were for helping students attain that and not just for having more students,” Davis said.

These metrics included the percent of bachelor's degree-holding graduates employed and/or continuing their education, bachelor's degrees awarded in areas of strategic emphasis (which include STEM and middle school education), median wages of bachelor’s graduates employed full-time in Florida, university access rate (percent of undergraduates with a Pell-grant), average cost per bachelor’s degree, graduate degrees awarded in areas of strategic emphasis, six year graduation rate (full-time and part-time FTIC), academic progress rate (second year retention with GPA above 2.0), a metric chosen by the BOG and a metric chosen by the university’s Board of Trustees (BOT), according to the BOG.

For the BOG choice, there are approved metrics that focus on the mission of each university and areas of improvement. For the BOT choice, the university’s Board chooses a metric from those remaining in the University Work Plans, which applies to their mission and is not already a part of the main model of metrics.

“That’s supposed to help the universities continue with their distinct missions,” Davis said.

USF’s BOT chose the number of post-doctoral appointees as one of USF’s metrics.

Davis recalled big jumps across the system in employment after graduation and students in areas of strategic emphasis once the metrics were implemented.

Overall, it brought big gains. Davis called it a positive change. Even with the competition for a fixed amount of funding, Davis sees universities working together.

“The universities have been working together more in a lot of ways,” Davis said. “I wouldn’t attribute that to the metrics, either way … They’re working together because it’s the right thing to do.”

After their unveiling, there was feedback from all stakeholders that the BOG heard; the Board took into account what it believed was the most important feedback with regard to making sure students get the maximum return on their educational investment.

The emphasis on STEM comes from the high wage and demand that comes from those jobs, according to Davis.

The hope is to get graduates employed in Florida, helping not only the return on investment for the student but also for the Florida taxpayers. The idea is to turn Florida into a place that attracts companies that hire STEM majors, focusing on providing well-qualified graduates.

Metrics such as the six-year graduation rate also have an employment focus. The metric comes from the opportunity cost of having a student out of the workforce, as well as the cost in student and taxpayer money when students don’t graduate.

Some of these focuses, according to Marilyn Bertch, an instructor in the USF School of Theatre and Dance, are not for the best.

For Bertch, a liberal arts education is more rounded because the arts play an important role in everything from sports to medicine.

“These things are so important that if you don’t know about art and music and dance, this limits you so much in even (how) you can relate to people and (are) able to talk to people,” Bertch said.

She finds a lack of it in STEM, an area of strategic emphasis in the state performance metrics, where a majority of performance-based funding goes at USF.

“(A liberal arts education) is invaluable, but we’ve left it out of STEM,” Bertch said. “We need to put the A in for STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics). It needs it. Everybody needs it.”

As far as emphasis, she feels the pendulum is swaying very heavily toward some fields. She feels other states have started to bring the balance back, but doesn’t think it’s the direction seen here at home.

“We need to bring the pendulum back to where it’s a little bit more balanced,” Bertch said.

She feels the metrics put pressure on faculty, notably in advising and trying to get students on the right path as early as possible.

“It just puts more parameters on us than teaching students how to learn their craft,” Bertch said.

The major agenda item is getting students through the universities as quickly as possible, from McColm’s perspective.

“Thomas Jefferson be damned,” he said.

In reference to Governor Scott, McColm felt university funding issues should be a message to students that elections have consequences.

“The place to direct your attention is the state government,” McColm said.

The mathematics department has seen a lack of resources, he observed. The department is not offering what he feels is the curriculum a university of USF’s size should be offering.

“We are offering what we can,” McColm said. “… We are really very short of resources, and that is the result of conscious decisions made by the state.”

The performance metric model was created by the BOG but funded by the Florida Legislature. The Legislature decides how much each university receives based on money allocated to performance based funding, a subset of money allocated to the state university system.

Neither the BOG nor the Legislature decide how the money is distributed within the university. For that, Davis suggested, it would be best to look to university administration.

For the 2015-16 academic year, USF received a 42 point ranking, behind only UF.

USF received $58,793,869 total in performance funding allocation, a combination of $23,627,973 of state investment and $35,165,896 in institutional investment, according to records from the BOG.

Additionally, the amount of new funds allocated to the university was $15,078,135.

This new money was distributed throughout the USF System. According to Wilcox, USF Tampa received $13,420,113, USF St. Petersburg received $1,087,802 and USF Sarasota-Manatee received $570,220.

Adding on the remaining money in the allocation of state investment, in total, USF Tampa received $19,075,850, USF St. Petersburg $3,023,354 and USF Sarasota-Manatee $1,528,769.

Across the USF System, of the $23,627,973 allocated, $14,158,443 were to be spent on increasing faculty in STEM and other areas of strategic emphasis.

Meanwhile $3,969,530 were set to be spent on enhancing student success, services and resources, according to documents from the BOG.

In 2014-15, when the first year performance metrics were implemented, USF received 37 points, again behind only UF.

USF received $17,099,675 in new funds, $9,004,505 in restoration of base funds contributed by each university to be allocated based on performance, $2,564,951 in funds previously used for TEAm grants, $2,608,696 in performance funds, for a total of $31,277,827 in performance based funding, according to records from the BOG.

Although this shows a $2,021,540 drop in new money, overall university funding saw an increase of $27,516,042.

According to the BOG’s summary of state education and general operating appropriations and actual full-time equivalent (FTE) students, state university system funding has seen an upward trend in the past two academic years.

Total state funding per FTE student was $12,011 in 2006-07. That year, a downward trend began and reached its lowest point in 2012-13 when funding per FTE student was $10,246. Florida Gov. Rick Scott took office on Jan. 4, 2011.

Shortly thereafter, an upward trend began. In 2013-14, funding was $12,527, a 22 percent increase from the previous academic year. Last year, funding was $13,137.

In 1985, state funding per FTE student was $5,464. Accounting for inflation using rates given by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is still an increase in overall funding per FTE student.

For USF in particular, total funding per FTE student was at $12,574 in 2006-07. It declined until 2010-11, when it saw a nine percent increase to $12,321. After this, funding declined sharply, hitting $9,067 at its lowest in 2012-13.

The following year, however, there was a 30 percent increase to $11,757. Last year, the first year of performance-based funding USF’s total funding per FTE student was $12,558.

In 1985-86, USF received $4,995 in funding per FTE student. Adjusting for inflation, USF is still receiving more money today, according to calculations based on rates given by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

USF’s sharpest decline in FTE student funding was between 2010-11 and 2012-13. FTE student funding then increased 30 percent between 2012-13 and 2013-14. Performance based funding metrics did not take effect until 2014-15.

In the U.S., a recession began in December of 2007 and reportedly ended in June of 2009, according to the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research. Following this pattern, there was a decline in Florida legislative funding from 2006-07 to 2012-13.

The recession made expanding or even maintaining funding hard to do. In reference to Governor Scott, Teague said the focus is, single-mindedly, on jobs and decreasing costs. The contribution to society has shifted to contributing to society through employment.

“So there’s less attention paid to do we want to develop a thoughtful, educated public, … through our education system,” Gregory Teague, associate professor in the department of mental health law and policy, said.

“There’s less attention paid to that value that public universities have traditionally thought was part of their job.”

Theresa H. Chisolm, vice provost for strategic planning, performance and accountability, doesn’t know whether getting people into the workforce is the major goal of the performance metrics, but said she thinks employment is important.

“For a lot of students, this is a step in their lives and they want to know that, after you invest so much money and so much time in an education, it’s nice to be able to get a paycheck on the other end I think,” Chisolm said.

“I don’t know that the performance metrics are doing that, per se, but we want to make sure that the curriculum that we’re offering students is one that will help them move forward in their lives after graduation in whatever they chose to do — go to graduate school, go to work.”

She feels as though it is very possible to get a well-rounded education while keeping on the pace the metrics favor.

“What I learned in college was how to be a lifelong learner,” Chisolm said. “That was one of the major outcomes.”

There is no question, Teague said, that performance metrics are informed by and centered on the workforce mentality Teague believes Governor Scott has been very vocal about.

As the state government has pulled back on funding for high education over the years, and as the department receives its budgets, in order to raise money, the College of the Arts has found itself focusing on how to fill seats and entice people to donate to the arts at USF, according to Bertch.

Bertch does believe there is a happy medium, where the arts are in STEM and valued equally for the preparedness it gives students for going into the global environment.

When it comes to whether or not the emphasis is on the workforce or a well-rounded liberal arts education, Davis feels the two are not mutually exclusive.

“I think that our board would say that students can get a well-rounded education and also receive the workforce training and the internship opportunities,” Davis said.

“I think that the dialogue is more that. Yes, we want our students to have a well-rounded education, but we also want to make sure that they are prepared for the workforce.”

Not all discussion has been negative. USF Faculty Senate President Michael Teng sees the metrics as a positive and a negative for the university.

“I think that the basic idea of (the metrics) is something worth trying,” he said.

Teng said he feels the metrics are very biased towards undergraduate education, which he recognizes as one of the university’s major missions, but there are other things USF does such as graduate education, community outreach and research.

“Just to focus more on one aspect of (the university) is probably a disservice to the entire university enterprise,” Teng said.

The metrics don’t affect the faculty all that much in Teng’s opinion. They don’t affect individual decisions so they aren’t really felt in an individualistic sense. On this point, he and Teague share an opinion.

According to Teague, performance-based funding is only a small portion of the money the university receives. Despite this, however, if a university is rewarded for doing something with even a small sum of money, they will work towards those things.

“So there is some impact throughout the institution in even pursuing those relatively small amounts of funds,” Teague said.

“… (But) because that’s a small percentage, the immediate impact from those dollars that a faculty member might experience … will not be very large, compared with the gaping hole that people experience.”

To Teague, performance-based funds don’t provide enough to close gaps in resources, at least not in a way most faculty may perceive.

He and Teng feel the metrics should be changed.

“I think the single-minded focus on jobs in a particular time frame to the exclusion of other things is not the best way to do it,” Teng said. “… It feels at some level that people are starting to treat colleges like more of a vocational school where you go and get the skills to get a job, and I’ve never viewed college as that type of thing.”

Teng said he understands college as place to broaden your mind and feels there is a responsibility for colleges and universities to provide more than just vocational training.

Despite his opposition to the metrics, he doesn’t think they will change and doesn’t know, at this point, exactly how he would change them.

“I think it’s kind of a fact of the Legislature that we’re not going to be able to change whether we have them or not,” Teng said.

Teague expects the amount of money in performance funding to increase slowly each year. He also feels the metrics will continue and their focus will continue. He feels the metrics aren’t all bad.

“If I were king of the land I would make some significant changes in the performance metrics,” Teague said. “I wouldn’t just have them do what they do, but I ain’t the king.

“In performance measurement systems in general, they’re always crude approximations of something and how you operationalize them — the ways that you calculate it, invariably call for making compromises, approximations, rough estimates, whatever, and they’re always a little crude. There’s no such thing as the perfect measure.”

He brought up the salary measurement, which needs to correct for the difference considering that pay is higher depending on the area in Florida.

Those in Miami make more than those in other cities, which can sway measurements. That, however, Teague said is quite the nuanced measurement, which he doesn’t feel the BOG will address.

“But again, I think the people here see the positives as much as they can and try to work within the system,” Teague said.

“It’s the hand that’s been dealt us,” Smith said. “If that’s the way the money is being distributed now, then our commitment is to do our very best to be sure that USF gets its fair share.”

Chisolm said she doesn’t think that there is an ideal.

“There just isn’t an unending amount of money in the state Legislature,” Chisolm said. “It’s not a pot that goes on forever and ever and there’s a lot of need.”

Smith pointed out that the old days of funding based on enrollment that some yearn for had its own flaws.

“So, if you look at some of the improvements in these metrics that we’re talking about for USF, (it’s) very clear that our students are having a better educational experience and part of that is because now we’re paying attention to qualities and aspects of student life that we really didn’t before under the old system,” Smith said.

Teague stressed that there could be positivity drawn from the performance-based metrics, approaching the situation with similar optimism to Davis’.

“With regard to the relationship between performance based funding and the funding levels overall, I would say that people may not appreciate that the relationship could very well be reversed,” Teague said. “That is, the trends in reduced funding coming from the estate are preceded the specific application of performance metrics and they’re national.

“If you look at universities around the country, there has been a downward trend, year after year, in the amount to public support given to public universities … and this is not made worse by performance-based funding, specifically.”

“In fact, in Florida, the one hypothesis is that performance-based funding has been a way to reduce the effect of that trend by saying ‘okay we’re not pouring money … down into a black hole, but indeed we’re making sure that we can count on getting some results from the public funding that we provide.’  At some level, one could make the argument that that’s a responsible thing for a governing body to do.”

Teague emphasized from the organization’s point of view that the institution has bought into performing in accordance with metrics to receive new money that is available. The effort is to do well in those areas. Many of those effects, he said, are actually good for students.

Since the performance-based funding is new money, Teague suggested, it isn’t as though the university is taking money away from other departments and giving it to other areas of campus by emphasizing STEM or other areas of strategic interest or advising.

Instead, it’s simply a reinforcement of the things that got the university the funds in the first place.

As for those who aren’t getting a large portion of these funds, there are other options, according to Teague.

“There are different costs of instruction throughout the institution and there are ways of allocating other funds — not the performance funds, but other funds to make up for some of those differences, and (USF has) done that,” Teague said.