February 25, 2008

Wrong incentive structure for community colleges/technical training

George R. Boggs and Marlene B. Seltzer describe Washington State's incentive structure designed to encourage community colleges to push completion:

Washington's community and technical colleges will receive extra money for students who earn their first 15 and first 30 college credits, earn their first 5 credits of college-level math, pass a pre-college writing or math course, make significant gains in certain basic skills tests, earn a degree or complete a certificate. Colleges also will be rewarded for students who earn a GED through their programs.

On the one hand, focusing on proximate measures on the way to degrees makes enormous sense, at least if we trust Cliff Adelman's work. On the other hand, I worry that such an incentives structure will affect standards in institutions with weak faculty governance and protection of academic freedom: "We need these students to pass these credits, or we lose money."

Better incentive structure: if public funding plus current tuition is sufficient for an institution's operating expenses (a rather big if, as I'm aware in Florida), keep the hands off the potentially perverse incentives inside the curriculum and give students an incentive to do well by keeping tuition stable for students as long as they make steady progress towards degrees. In other words, tuition stability (or a cap on rising tuition) is guaranteed if students are doing well.

The institutional incentives then can be geared towards summary graduation measures, to some extent. Florida's universities are having their first bite of outcome incentives this year, but the budget cut is swamping the effects of it. (Here's the motivational undermining: You don't starve people and then tell them they can earn a little bit of pin money if they work harder. At this point, at least for the universities, it's a matter of looking to the future and probably a system negotiation about formulae.)

There's a lot more to be said about higher-ed accountability, including Gerald Graff's commentary on assessment and Erin O'Connor's response, but I have to chair a proposal defense in 10 minutes...

Update (2/27): Kevin Carey responds:

I'd like to propose that people be more judicious and precise in their use of the term "perverse incentives" by not applying it to any incentive that could theoretically cause someone to act in bad faith.

I'm not going to split hairs by pointing out the adverb potentially up in the original entry (okay, originally potential and then changed to potentially); if I understand it correctly, Carey's argument is that we should not say something is a perverse incentive unless we can really point to the evidence of strong corrupting influences. In this case, my argument is about the pressures on instructors, not students (something different from what Carey inferred). Are colleges susceptible to such corruption when institutional stakes are tied to individual course grades? The scandals each year tied to athletics (e.g, FSU and tutors who helped athletes cheat) tell me the answer is yes.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on February 25, 2008 9:49 AM |