Data on Alabama universities coming soon, step toward performance-based funding

Data on Alabama universities coming soon, step toward performance-based funding

By Mary Sell, Alabama Daily News

More information about how well Alabama colleges and universities are meeting their missions will soon be more easily available to the public.

State House leaders say data like graduation and retention rates could eventually be tied to institutions’ state funding.

Starting this year, higher education “accountability metrics” will be posted online in five categories: governance; student success; academic program success, financial health and stability; and responsiveness to state and local needs. 

Jim Purcell, executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, said recently that university leaders met for more than a year about “how to assess our performance on what we thought really mattered.”

The first available data, including information about schools’ revenues and retention and graduation rates, will be available in mid-May, Purcell said. 

State House leaders for years have talked about more accountability and the possibility of performance-based funding in higher education. This fiscal year, for the first time, the state’s community colleges’ increases in state funding were based on a handful of performance measurements. They haven’t yet been applied to four-year schools, in part because data isn’t readily available. 

“(Senate President Pro Tem Del) Marsh believes this is important because the tax payers send over $1.1 billion to Alabama universities every year and it is important that taxpayers know that their money is being spent wisely and in a responsible manner.” Will Califf, Marsh’s communications director, said recently. “Until now, there was no measure of accountability. However, through this agreement and with the help of the Alabama Council of University Presidents, we now have a way to measure data and accountability for lawmakers to make informed decisions and ensure that everyone’s information being reported is on a level playing field.”

Alabama’s universities have appointed boards and Auburn and Alabama were created in the state Constitution.

“It puts huge restraints on the Legislature advocating something within the systems,” Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said. She’s chairwoman of the House Education Policy Committee.

“We’re asking for more information to at least see where we are as state,” Collins said. “That, to me, seems perfectly reasonable.” 

Lawmakers don’t have direct control over the universities, but they do dole out funding each year.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said the data is needed to know where improvements at specific institutions are needed and how to fund them.

“The idea that we’re going to continue to fund every institution just because they exist, that won’t facilitate improvement,” said Orr, chairman of the Senate Education budget committee.

Representatives from The University of Alabama and Auburn University said they approve of the metrics. 

“We don’t mind accountability, we don’t mind transparency, we promote both,” said Clay Ryan, vice-chancellor of government affairs and economic development at Alabama.

A written statement from Auburn said it and Auburn Montgomery fully support educational accountability. 

“Each year, we work with ACHE and already meet the spirit and goals of the proposal,” it said.

Data and dollars

Performance-based funding on at least some of the universities’ state dollars is an eventual expectation, Collins said, with the understanding that they’ll be judged on their unique missions. The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s mission is different than Athens State University’s, which is different than Alabama State University’s, and so on. 

Purcell said the measures could move forward the performance-based funding conversation “in a rational way.”

He said he’s worked in other states where it has not been done well. As of 2016, at least 31 states were using outcome-based funding for at least a portion of their high education allocations, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The University of North Alabama welcomes — and has advocated for years — allocating funding based on good outputs.

“Performance funding and accountability measures have come late to the state of Alabama” UNA Provost Ross Alexander said.  In Tennessee, most state funding is tied to performance.

For UNA, marrying funding to statistics like graduation and four-year completion rates would probably mean more money. It’d be hard to get less.

Out of 14 universities, UNA’s per-student funding is 14th and $9 million behind 13th place, Alexander said.

“Funding today is a raw political exercise,” Alexander said. “It’s not based on anything but politics.” 

“This is an attempt to bring about some equity.” 

While performance-based funding for four-year schools is likely years away while data is compiled, an immediate change is expected in the 2020 budget. Purcell, who came to ACHE in 2017, compared Alabama institutions’ funding to that of some of their peers nationwide. He’s making suggested changes based on those findings.

“The University of North Alabama is one of the schools I did recommend more funding for, based on (that comparison),” Purcell said.

The legislative session starts next week and Gov. Kay Ivey’s 2020 budget recommendations will be released then.