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    Why Performance-Based Funding Fails to Improve College Graduation Rates – and How States Can Do Better

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    The number of students who enroll in college and take on debt without receiving a college degree is striking. Of all students enrolled in America’s public four-year universities, less than 60 percent will graduate with a degree within six years. Even fewer enrollees graduate from two-year colleges, where only about 30 percent earn a credential within three years. To put this in perspective, over the past 20 years, more than 30 million students have enrolled in U.S. colleges only to drop out without receiving a degree or certificate.

    What can be done? In response to what many call the “completion crisis,” lawmakers in more than 30 states have implemented performance-based policies that fund universities based on how many students they graduate instead of, or in addition to, how many they enroll. The underlying logic is simple: if colleges have an incentive to graduate more of the students they enroll, they will invest more to help their students actually earn degrees.

    The Weak Performance of Performance-Based Funding

    Despite the intuitive appeal of performance-based funding, research evidence suggests these policies do not produce intended boosts in student graduation rates. In fact, after gathering all of the published, peer-reviewed research on the topic and combining it into one model, my colleagues and I have demonstrated that performance-based funding has, on average, zero impact on the number of students making it to graduation. Even more concerning, we find that the average performance-based funding policy reduces college access for underrepresented groups of potential students. This happens because college administrators raise admissions standards in hopes of narrowing admitted enrollees to only those most likely to make it to graduation.

    Our results do not say that every kind of performance-based funding is bound to fail at improving college graduation rates, only that current policy designs in the vast majority of states are not accomplishing the intended policy goals. To make improvements in the future, we need to understand why such an intuitive and well-intentioned type of program so clearly fails to help more students graduate from college.

    Oversights in Current Policies

    My research pinpoints three areas where performance-funding policies fail to align with reality and thus prove ineffective.

    • Failure to recognize competing stakeholders. For changes in state funding of colleges and universities to shift the priorities of university administrators, state legislatures would have to be the most important source of support. But this does not reflect current realities in higher education, because most institutions have multiple competing stakeholders ranging from donors and state regents to accreditation agencies and prominent politicians, all of whom can introduce competing pressures.
    • Colleges and universities have unequal capacities to improve graduation rates. Research has shown that institutional capacities and student populations at community colleges are vastly different from those found at well-resourced research universities. Some colleges may be able to provide expanded student support, but others cannot. Indeed, many public two-year colleges are already underfunded and serve predominantly disadvantaged students. If the goal is to increase the quality of educational services, slashing appropriations to already struggling institutions could make the situation even worse for their students and teachers.
    • Financial incentives may have limited and unintended impacts. Financial incentives may not be enough to impact complex outcomes and can lead to unintended consequences, such as reducing access to college for minorities and low-income people. In many fields of social policy, scholars have documented such patterns. For example, when hospitals have implemented performance-based funding models, health outcomes were not improved, instead surgeons and physicians misdiagnosed more patients and tried to avoid those with the greatest needs. Similarly, when policymakers tied funding for school teachers to standardized test results for their students, teachers narrowed instruction to tested areas rather than helping students learn to become critical thinkers.

    How To Improve College Completion Rates

    Taken together, real-world challenges make improving graduation rates much more complicated than many performance-based funding policies presume. So what should concerned policymakers do? There are two main ways forward.

    • If a state is determined to use performance-based funding formulas for its public institutions, policymakers should design the formulas to encourage colleges and university leaders to target enhanced supports on the most vulnerable student populations. Recent research shows that performance-based funding can direct financial bonuses to institutions that provide access and extra supports to underserved student groups. Carefully designed policies can alleviate some of the negative side-effects of performance-based funding, by ensuring access to less privileged students as overall graduation rates are improved.
    • More fundamentally, policymakers should address the root cause of the problem, not the symptoms. The number one reason so many students drop out is that college has become less affordable for many lower and middle-class families.

    Indeed, instead of pursuing policies that manipulate incentives for institutions, state legislatures and others would be well advised to invest in need-based financial aid and other programs to help needy students stay in college until they graduate. Addressing the underlying issue of college affordability for low-income and middle-class families will not only improve completion rates, but also strengthen state and local economies. In turn, more students earning degrees will swell the ranks of skilled workers, boost economic growth and business profits, and generate more tax dollars to invest in education and other public necessities in the future.

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    Bell's research focuses on the effectiveness and politics of policies designed to improve college access, affordability, and accountability. Her current research agenda centers on the politics of tuition-free community college policies as well as performance-based funding in higher education. This article was written in collaboration with the Scholar Strategy Network.

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    Education

    Project-Based Learning for the Virtual Classroom

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    Project-based learning (PBL) may not be the first thing that teachers consider when planning for remote or hybrid lessons. However, with a little creativity and an organized approach, project-based learning can engage students in a way that may be lacking during typical virtual instruction. So what is it, exactly? PBL, simply put, is an approach to learning through exploration of a real-world problem or question. Ideally, students choose to investigate a problem or challenge that means something to them – something that impacts their daily lives. Then, through research, collaboration, and exploration, students gain a deeper understanding of the issue or challenge and how they can contribute to a solution. Even more important is the fact that, through project-based learning, students gain a better understanding of who they are as learners and critical thinkers. With being said, let’s look at how instructors can utilize PBL in virtual settings.

    How to Organize PBL for Remote Learning

    “Embrace the chaos of now” by asking students to discuss what is currently troubling them. When students have a vested interest in their classwork, they will obviously be more inclined to engage in the work and follow through on the assignment. Ask about challenges or problems they’ve been having, such as:

    • What has been your biggest struggle with adapting to virtual/remote learning?
    • What needs are not being met in this “new normal?”
    • How has your daily routine changed since the start of the pandemic?
    • What is a problem that you see your peers, neighbors, teachers, community struggling with?

    After students have identified an issue or challenge that they personally recognize in their day-to-day lives, ask them to do a little preliminary brainstorming about the problem using a standard KWL chart. The KWL chart is an old favorite in the classroom for any sort of introduction to a new topic, concept, or unit. For project-based learning, the KWL chart provides students with a visual starting point and a trajectory for where their research is headed. The graphic organizer, for those who have not used it before acts as a simple t-chart to organize what students already know (K) about the topic, what they want (W) to know about the topic, and what they learn (L) throughout their research process. This simple visual aid acts as the foundation for critical thinking by visually, yet simply, organizing a student’s thoughts.

    Next, you can help students with backward design or backward mapping by outlining objectives first. Again, project-based learning is all about allowing students to explore a challenge and identify a resolution or fix for the problem. In order to adequately lay out the groundwork, students must have a clear and definitive end goal. Therefore, in planning for success, teachers need to help students employ backward mapping strategies by beginning with something like a S.M.A.R.T. (Specific. Measurable. Attainable. Relevant. Timely.) goal—then working backward from there to achieve that goal.

    Instructors can also utilize haptic engagement or hands–on learning by encouraging students to physically try out or experiment with their ideas. Teachers can model this experiential learning by choosing their own PBL to focus on while kids are working. Show students that, in order to truly solve a problem, people must occasionally get their hands dirty. It is also important for teachers to note that success stories are almost always trial and error—a sound solution will not come right away. By testing hypotheses and modifying approaches, students truly understand the value of hands–on, experiential learning. Not only are these demonstrations helpful for getting closer to a solution, but haptic engagement also teaches students about grit, perseverance, and strategies around error analysis.

    Another great skill set that students may develop while participating in PBL classroom activities involves retrieval practice. Since students are focusing their work on one primary challenge, they are able to hone their focus and truly absorb new information as they learn. Teachers can help foster retrieval strategies with activities such as Cornell note-taking, peer teaching, and Socratic seminars, in which students take the lead in delivering information to one another.

    Try some of these PBL strategies out in your next lesson, whether it be virtual or in-person, and see the results for yourself.

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    Education

    New Preschool Program in Oregon is a Model for the Nation—But Challenges Remain

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    By Mary King and Lisa Dodson

    In November 2020, voters in Multnomah County, home to the city of Portland, resoundingly approved the creation of a new, universal preschool program—a program that could serve as a model for desperately needed preschool and childcare investments for the entire country. All three- and four-year-olds in Multnomah county will be able to attend a free, year-round, universal, high quality preschool program that meets their needs as well as those of most families, providers and staff, and local businesses. Key elements include a wide range of choices for families as well as living wages and professional supports for providers and workers. The program is slated to be equitably funded by a local income tax on the highest income households.

    Two big challenges remain: ensuring that families with “non-traditional” work schedules are included, and significantly increasing public investment in facilities to allow preschools to expand well beyond church basements and providers’ homes. Those working non-traditional hours are disproportionately low-income, women, people of color, and often “essential workers” without whom our society and economy would not function. Federal childcare initiatives must address the needs of families with such work schedules, or the families that most need public child care will be left out.

    A Universal Model that Serves Diverse Needs

    Universal preschool programs benefit all children and lead to better outcomes than means-tested programs for the most disadvantaged children. Means-tested programs such as Head Start seek to deliver services only to households with low incomes. Although means-tested programs “target the poor,” universal programs bring children and families from across the socioeconomic spectrum together, challenging ongoing race, ethnic and class segregation that erodes democracy. Universality also inspires broad support to maintain adequate funding. After fifty well-regarded years, Head Start is still available—but only for a fraction of eligible families, and even then, often only part-time and part-year. High quality preschool and child care is out of reach for the large majority of families who already face the high cost of housing, health care, and student debt with stagnating wages. Importantly, universal preschool is both a two-generation anti-poverty program and a powerful boost to economic development, because it returns $9.45 to the community for every dollar spent.

    Families raising young children are diverse and need a wide range of options. Multnomah County’s new Preschool for All program will offer choices of:

    • language and cultural contexts, including Afro-centric and other alternatives,
    • types of setting, including family childcare providers, public schools and free-standing centers, and
    • schedules, including school year and year-round, full and part-time, weekend days as well as week days, with up to 50 hours a week for families that need or want longer days

    Children with disabilities will be included, facilitating earlier identification of health issues and treatment. Expulsions, now too common in preschool settings particularly for children of color, will be prohibited, requiring that the system provide supportive interventions to meet all children’s needs.

    Fair Pay and Professional Support for Providers and Workers

    Currently, U.S. family childcare providers, preschool teachers, and childcare workers earn poverty wages with few benefits and often cope with difficult working conditions. The result is high turnover; the loss of skilled, experienced and dedicated workers to jobs that better support their families; and damage to the quality of care. High quality child care depends on the ongoing relationships caregivers develop with families, children, and co-workers.

    Multnomah County’s new Preschool for All program will pay teachers comparably with kindergarten teachers, doubling their current salaries. The wage floor for assistant teachers and other classroom staff will be set at nearly $20 an hour when the program starts in Fall 2022, with pay levels adjusted to reward increasing skills, training and experience. Continuing professional development will be geared to the schedules of the low-income working parents who are over-represented among preschool workers. Should workers wish to join a union, employers will be required to remain neutral.

    Funding universal high quality child care is within reach. Over the past 40 years, U.S. economic gains have been concentrated on an ever smaller group of the wealthy, while responsibility for paying for our infrastructure and public services has been shifted from the affluent to the working and middle classes. Reversing such trends, Multnomah County’s preschool program is to be funded by a county income tax on approximately eight percent of households at the top. Combined federal, state, and local income tax rates for such households will still fall far below the top tax federal income tax rates in place for the much of the 20th century, from the 1930s through the 1970s.

    Unmet Challenges

    Multnomah County intends to offer preschool up to ten hours a day and on weekend days, but has not committed to other “non-traditional” hours. Employers demand “non-traditional” work schedules for the three occupations expected to add the most jobs between 2019 and 2029: home health and personal care aides, fast food and counter workers, and restaurant cooks. Many retail and hospitality positions also entail low wages and employer insistence that workers maintain “open availability,” and healthcare, construction, and gig workers struggle with work schedules that make it very difficult to find child care.

    Multnomah County will pay fair wages to everyone working in the classroom, but will not supplement the pay of people working in Head Start and other public preschool and childcare programs that pay too little to retain skilled people in the face of a more attractive alternative. The county plans to support some infant and toddler programs, but won’t be able to overcome the severe shortage of affordable, quality care for these age groups, likely to be exacerbated by competition from a preschool system offering better compensation. Finally, preschool and child care is now crowded into inexpensive or public spaces; serving all children well will require a significant investment in physical facilities.

    Despite such continuing challenges, Multnomah County’s Preschool for All offers a national model, with its variety of choices to families, living wages for all classroom staff, and an equitable approach to public funding. Each of these aspects needs to be included in any new federal program. In addition, a new federal program should aspire to offer high quality child care to families struggling with difficult work schedules, until labor legislation is revised to place limits on such unpredictable schedules. Strategies will also need to be implemented to improve the wages of workers in Head Start and other public preschool and childcare programs.

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    Diversity

    Why Political Science Can and Should Lead Diversity Efforts in Higher Education

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    Diversity is big business in the academy. Foundations such as Ford, Carnegie, and Robert Wood Johnson support academic efforts to diversify the professoriate; and colleges and universities across the country are investing significant resources in diversity efforts. Furthermore, the academy has begun hiring chief diversity officers, following corporate sector trends — 60% of Fortune 500 companies have chief diversity officers among their top-executives.

    Although the numbers of women in political science have shown modest growth over the last two decades, the number of women of color in the field has largely remained flat. Political science scholarship on minority representation in U.S. legislatures sheds light on this professional conundrum, too. This literature shows how organized women, racial and ethnic minorities, and their allies can promote diversity and inclusive practices to bring about lasting change in political science, other disciplines and higher education more broadly.

    An Opportune Moment for Political Science

    Research on social movements shows that, when windows of opportunity arise, activists must have the resources to change the status quo and push for policy breakthroughs. I suggest that heightened attention to institutional diversity across academia presents an opportunity that political scientists can and should seize by presenting themselves as credible stakeholders who are well-equipped to: steward institutions’ newly available resources, run innovative pilot programs, and produce returns on institutional diversity investments for both students and faculty.

    Student demands will be a key resource in these efforts, but administrators can often “wait students out” — stalling student diversity efforts until a new cohort must begin afresh. Political Science is uniquely positioned to lead institutional change by using research from the discipline to encourage student activists to investigate the issues, formulate long- and short-term goals, determine the scope of their influence, identify allies and opponents, construct informed arguments, and make specific demands with measurable outcomes. This informed activism can help students leverage their status over time as students, alumni, and donors to move towards shared goals for departmental, disciplinary, and institutional change.

    Political Science is attracting many undergraduate women majors. Women are faring as well as men on the discipline’s job market. They are approaching pay equity with male colleagues and increasing their presence in the ranks of full professors. In 2010, women of color comprised 13.5% of female political science faculty, more than double their share in 1980. Although this improvement remains relatively modest compared to the nearly 300% increase in women faculty over that span, the progress for women of color is promising and can act as a foundation for future diversity efforts. Nevertheless, many challenges must still be addressed — including burdens of balancing tenure-track and family responsibilities, “inhospitable” institutional climates, and research norms that discount women’s contributions to collaborative work.

    Building a Diversity Infrastructure

    Sheer numbers are the first requirement for building diversity infrastructure. With sufficient numbers, members of gender and racial caucuses can promote further change and build organizational capacities. Research on the impact of diversity in Congress shows that the Congressional Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American caucuses encourage information and resource sharing, enhanced communication, and collective action on behalf of racial and ethnic minorities. Through caucuses, task forces, and organized voting blocs, minority legislators have kept low-salience civil rights issues on the congressional agenda despite waning public interest. Women’s and racial and ethnic caucuses in national and regional political science associations show that female political scientists can capitalize on their numbers to act as disruptive-insiders to further diversify faculties and challenge discrimination.

    Buy-in from political science department heads who name search committees and from faculty making influential recommendations will be indispensable for furthering these efforts. Departmental objectives can be linked to university diversity efforts. Male faculty members should be encouraged to serve on diversity committees and act as change agents.

    Thinking beyond individual departments, women’s caucuses and ethnic caucuses in political science associations could share resources and knowledge and coordinate agendas. If increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of the discipline is to be achieved, then women’s caucuses will need to work closely with race and ethnic caucuses in the discipline. Although universal sisterhood may be a worthy ideal, faculty women of color cannot be cast as handmaidens rather than full partners in the work of transforming the discipline.

    Mentorship is Not Enough

    The number of women of color entering political science faculties has stagnated, and many minority faculty members leave political science departments for more hospitable interdisciplinary centers. Recruitment and retention should therefore be top priorities — and that is going to take more than just mentoring programs.

    Mentorship is a common answer to the challenge of recruiting, supporting, and retaining minority faculty. Mentoring, however, only teaches people how to survive in institutions. It does not necessarily attract more people to enter institutions, and it does not help them change institutions. Although the very presence of black women on academic faculties and in front of classrooms changes the academy, that is not enough. Despite widely shared good intentions, the discipline cannot rely on mentoring alone to help women of color overcome racism, sexism, and other systematic obstacles to their advancement. At best, mentoring will help women faculty of color expand their social networks, establish important professional relationships, and better navigate minefields. At worst, mentoring will help some individuals survive and advance, while maintaining longstanding power disparities in the discipline. Mentoring obviously cannot ameliorate the impediments that routinely challenge and undermine women of color at all ranks of the professoriate. Political science must lead the way in identifying and deploying all of the strategies that can bring broader progress in universities and disciplines.

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