State pushes for better ROI info on higher education.

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By Emerson Lynn

Historically, the Vermont Legislature has used the number of full-time equivalent students to determine how much money to appropriate for the University of Vermont and the Vermont State College system.  This enrollment-based funding model has been standard practice here and in most states.

That model is being rethought. As of the first of the year, 30 states have decided to move to a performance-based funding system that pegs at least a portion of the allocation to how well the students do, at what costs, and over what period of time.

What these states are doing is moving to a system that shows the taxpayer what sort of “return on investment” the state is getting for the money spent.

For anyone who believes in transparency and the need to improve educational outcomes, this is a major step in the right direction.

And it’s coming to Vermont.

The Legislature approved language this past session that would require a “results-based funding proposal” to be presented to the governor and general assembly by Dec. 15.

The performance measures would include: “… 1] retention and four-year graduation rates; 2] number of both graduate and undergraduate degrees awarded; 3] actual cost of instruction; 4] cost of attendance after all no-loan financial aid; 5] average amount of financial aid awarded; and 6] average debt upon graduation for Vermont students.”

The report will also consider the number of first-generation students and the number of students enrolled in programs deemed important to the state’s economy.

Not only are these metrics useful for legislators to then be able to explain the value of their appropriations, they should be invaluable in the continual need to identify strengths and weaknesses in the systems we have.

This national shift has been prompted for three key reasons: 1.] A competition for scarce resources; 2.] a concern over rising student debt; and 3] the debate over the importance of a college education and which majors produce what values.

The same issues are applicable here. We also continue to be bedeviled by budgets stained in red ink, which means legislators [and the governor] need to understand what they are getting in return for every dollar appropriated.

In other words, key indicators such as graduation rates and debt upon graduation will take on additional meaning.  Legislators in Vermont, and elsewhere, will begin to examine more closely those schools with low graduation rates and high student debt. They will begin to see what works best, and what doesn’t.

The report due in December will affect only a portion of the appropriation that goes to UVM and the VSC system. Not only is that step important in terms of understanding the “return on investment” it’s also critical for three additional reasons: first, it draws attention to the relationship between higher education and the preK-12 educational system; second, if our educational system in Vermont is as good as we say it is, then it should elevate our standing nationally; and, third, it would solidify the understanding as to the importance of the higher education “industry” to Vermont.

The University of Vermont, for example, is an economic engine that pumps over a billion dollars a year through the state’s economy. The VSC and its various campuses are also significant economic contributors.

The more public this becomes, the better it is for Vermont. The most powerful attraction we have as a state is a highly regarded educational system. Having it better understood – at all levels – is what gives us hope for a prosperous future.

Understanding this need, and this potential should unite the higher education community in Vermont to embrace the Legislature’s quest for more and better information about their operations and how they are using state appropriations to improve educational outcomes.

It’s also information that should serve as the bridge from our preK-12 system to the post-secondary system.  There has been and continues to be a disconnect between the two. If plumbed thoroughly and correctly, the return on investment information being sought by the Legislature for VSC and UVM could be what pushes us to consider education in Vermont as something that begins in preschool and ends with a diploma beyond year 12.

That would be a true return on investment.

Emerson Lynn is publisher and editor of the St. Albans Messenger and a co-owner of The Colchester Sun.