Is Performance Funding Right for College?

Ann M. Pearson

Performance funding certainly works in industry. Commission is a proven formula for motivating sales professionals to go out and establish new territories and secure and maintain customers. The bonus system works well in a manufacturing environment, too. Paying work crews additional money for a certain number of accident-free days or incentivizing early project completion can be a sound investment that motivates workers to increase productivity safely and share in the rewards of that efficiency.

The general concept of performance funding has been introduced into the higher education world by state policy makers who are searching for innovative ways to improve graduation and other success indicators in institutions of higher learning.

On the surface, applying this industry model to higher education seems reasonable—we are large, costly institutions that do have indicators that show success for our participants (students). The most traditional marker of success in college is graduation. And we still strive to help our students achieve their goals of graduating with a degree.

But at San Jacinto College, as at many community colleges, our students are so very diverse that having a single success marker is questionable at best. Not all of our students graduate with an academic degree—but they can still be successful in other ways.

Success comes in almost as many guises as our students themselves. One thing is certain: we do not have any students who start classes hoping to fail or wanting to invest significant time and money into a class schedule and then quit about halfway through intentionally. The vagaries of life, including childcare, elder care, employment, illness, and other obligations complicate obtaining a college degree, earning a certificate, or even completing a course. For many reasons, some students just cannot adopt a traditional schedule as full-time students.

Law-makers have tried to take into account the value of intermittent steps such as completing a first math class and earning 15 and 30 credit hours, as well as gaining a certificate or degree. The steps student achieve all earn the college funding points. In Texas, this sort of points-based funding model is used for 10% of the allocated money that goes to community colleges. Unfortunately, over the last few years, the amount the legislature has paid out per point per student has decreased each year. No matter how you calculate it, receiving less money is still less money.

Money seems to be always in short supply across the board, and education feels the pinch just as much as other sectors. More research is needed to determine if the performance pay funding formula is a good fit for higher ed and if it is having any impact on increasing the traditional success measure of timely graduation for our students. That was the original objective. We’re likely to see that other factors contribute to success more directly including intrusive advising, structured pathways, and one-on-one counseling. Our awareness that students define success differently at various life stages helps us foster success for all of our students on their terms.

Dr. Ann M. Pearson is Assistant Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at San Jacinto College (TX), where she’s currently working with Accreditation & Assessment. She was an English faculty member for 25 years, with 7 of those at SJC. She occasionally returns to the SJC English Department as an adjunct faculty member.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on August 23, 2017.