From the Daily: Budget fails to help schools in need

Wednesday, March 9, 2016 - 6:57pm

Gov. Rick Snyder cut 15 percent of higher education funding at the beginning of his first term as governor of Michigan in 2011, heavily affecting 15 public universities and colleges, including the University of Michigan. Snyder has since incrementally increased state funding for higher education, and the increase proposed for the 2017 budget will allow funding levels to return to those of 2011. Funding allocated to higher education will increase by $61.2 million, with a cap on public university tuition hikes at 4.8 percent as a condition for recieving some of the funds. This is uncharacteristically generous compared to last year’s $28 million in funding and a 3.2-percent cap on tuition increases.

However, it is important to note that not all schools benefit equally from this increase in funding. Instead, schools are evaluated and deemed deserving of different levels of funding based on criteria that deceivingly slights some schools. While it is encouraging to Michigan residents that stronger efforts are being made to support the state’s higher education system, measurement of each university’s performance should correspond to each university’s specific goals and demographic composition.

Schools receive funding for two different purposes: costs of everyday operation and performance-based spending. Operational funding is tied to university activities and helps run schools, while performance funding is incentivized by a standardized performance evaluation — and performance funding is the type Snyder is increasing with his new budget proposal.

This type of funding takes three categories into consideration for each school: undergraduate degree completions in critical skills areas, research and development expenses and national rankings to Carnegie peers. National rankings depend upon six-year graduation rates, total degree completions, institutional support and number of Pell Grant recipients from each school. The highest-performing schools in all categories subsequently receive the highest percentage increase in funding, but this trend punishes schools that perform poorly by denying them the appropriate funds to succeed in the future.

Students at such schools are suffering as well. Schools such as Wayne State University and Grand Valley State University, that tend to perform the worst on the standardized criteria for funding evaluation  — including graduation and retention rates — are the same schools dedicated to admitting students from urban areas. The goal of increased funding is to better support universities and colleges, but the current system ultimately benefits those already doing well and harms those who need more assistance.

Wayne State University is expecting this year to be the fifth consecutive year yielding the statewide lowest percentage of funding increase. Wayne State follows a mission statement rooted in helping at-risk students, and therefore cannot compete with the schools receiving the most funding. It is slated to receive a 3.5-percent increase. This is contrary to the schools receiving the most funding, such as Grand Valley State University, which is planned to receive 6.8-percent increase, that are intentionally designed to do well on evaluations such as the performance funding model.

In addition to hurting schools who have fewer resources but also have goals to aid students of lower socioeconomic status, the current evaluation system rewards schools that have previously disregarded the tuition cap set by the state. Oakland University, for example, is scheduled for a 6.1-percent increase in funding, despite raising tuition last year above the maximum 3.2-percent increase.

The current system used to evaluate schools’ performances is too standardized. It does not account for the unique needs of certain institutions that cater to students who simply cannot compete with students from other institutions. Ultimately, the current metrics funding model does not adequately meet the needs of all students. Rather, it gives the biggest benefit through a large sum of money to students who already attend colleges capable of offering superb education.

It is refreshing to see Snyder acting to benefit Michigan residents, but the execution of this funding plan prevents those in most dire need of funding from getting the appropriate and fair amount. Though the idea of doling out funds based on meritocracy does not need to change, the value of such funds given to schools cannot be determined by a standardized test that cannot possibly take the school’s personal goals and situation into consideration.

The manner in which schools are evaluated for increased funding should instead be more individualized. A new evaluation system should be adopted to allow schools to be judged based on how well they are meeting their own goals given their individual circumstances, rather than how well they fit into the current mold.