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State's plans for higher education could founder on financial shoals

Gov. John Kitzhaber has big plans for Oregon's education system, with the latest bold strokes being written across the operating manuals of the state's community colleges and universities. There's much to be said in support of the plan, but also major concerns that, if not addressed, will leave the ideas unrealized.

As part of the governor's overall plan to dramatically ramp up high school and college graduation rates, education officials are developing a reimbursement plan for community colleges and universities that, as currently proposed, would base 30 percent of state funding on degrees awarded, rather than on the number of students enrolled.

That outcomes-based funding model makes sense in many ways, by rewarding schools for completing their tasks of educating students rather than rewarding those who can crowd the most students into their classrooms. It meshes with the governor's 40-40-20 plan, which essentially says that by 2025, 40 percent of Oregon adults will have a four-year or greater college degree, 40 percent a two-year or comparable associate's degree and 20 percent a high school or comparable degree.

We must first give a look back to No Child Left Behind and remind ourselves that a 100 percent goal is admirable, but not achievable, no matter how earnest the effort.

But the effort is worthwhile, nonetheless, if it makes a significant impact on the numbers of graduates in the state. The percentage of four-year college graduates, in particular, represents a bellwether for a region's economy — the higher the percentage of college graduates in an area, the stronger that area's economy tends to be. Oregon could use a boost in both areas.

But the high-minded educational goals in this state often crash upon a basic economic theory: In order to get a return, you must be willing to make an investment. Every session, legislators cast about wildly for economic development ideas and every session (in recent memory at least), they reduce the state contribution to the economic machine driven by higher education and community colleges.

Before being awed by the 30 percent of state support that would be based on degrees awarded, it's worthwhile to consider that in the current Rogue Community College budget, the state is contributing a whopping 14 percent of the school's funding. For the university system, the contribution is 12 percent. That means more and more of the burden is falling on students. (Note to governor: You can't raise graduation rates if you price your degrees out of reach.)

There also is trepidation among community college and smaller universities like Southern Oregon that an outcomes-based future would penalize schools for students who transfer. While it no doubt faces a tracking issue, the state should ensure fairness in the system by crediting schools that set students on the path to degrees along with those who award the degrees. A student who attends SOU for two years before transferring to the University of Oregon to finish is not a failure, something that needs to be recognized.

The same is true for community colleges whose students move on to a four-year institution before getting a degree. Beyond that, is it really a failure if a student studying diesel mechanics drops out to take a job as a diesel mechanic? The degree is good, but the job is critical for many community college students.

Basing funding on outcomes makes sense in many ways. But the state needs to recognize that learning and success occur at numerous stages along the way, not merely when the diploma is handed over.

It also needs to recognize that the value of funding schools according to outcomes is tied in part to the value of the funds it provides. If the governor and the Legislature will not make the investment that's needed, they should not expect to get the return they hope for.

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