Monday, May 6, 2013

Deal tinkers with higher education funding formula

Posted By on Mon, May 6, 2013 at 4:45 PM

Gov. Nathan Deal
For years, Georgia's public colleges have generally received state funding based on the number of students that fill its dorms and classrooms. Gov. Nathan Deal wants to change that.

Deal's Higher Education Funding Commission has proposed a new system to help finance the state's university and technical college systems. The new formula would focus on student achievement rather than enrollment. The governor thinks doing so would help Georgia - where only 40 percent of residents hold college degrees - attract employers and connect graduates with jobs.

A 13-page report released late last year lists measures that would reward student achievement and results in higher education - such as receiving a diploma or reaching a certain number of credit hours - instead of providing funds based on the number of students who show up on campus.

In the governor's press release announcing the release of the report, Deal described its findings as a "good starting point" in increasing college "access, retention and completion."

Kristin Bernhard, Deal's education policy advisor, told CL in an email that Deal will now work with the General Assembly and other government officials to determine how the recommendations should be used. The change would not require legislative action.

The commission that suggested the formula change consists mainly of legislators, higher education officials and students in the university and technical college systems, as well as members of the business community. It has recommended gradually implementing the plan starting in the 2015 fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2014, and the plan would take full effect the following year, Deal spokesman Brian Robinson told CL.

University System of Georgia Chancellor Hank Huckaby expressed confidence in the proposed formula, calling it an "excellent framework."

The formula would allow colleges to earn their public funding based on a combination of two factors: the number of students who cross critical hours-earned benchmarks - 30, 60 and 90 hours - and the number who ultimately obtain a degree.

And, the formula would enable certain types of schools, such as Georgia's technical colleges and research universities, to receive public funding based on their goals, such as job placement or external research funding.

The proposal comes at a time when enrollment in Georgia's university system is rising - a factor that prompted a slight bump in funding of 2.8 percent for the next fiscal year, according to a February report by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

But this rise in funding will be used mainly to support the increase in student enrollment as well as for employee benefits, GBPI says. Funding for teaching continues to decline.

Meanwhile, enrollment at technical colleges is falling, which will result in less funding for those schools starting this July, GBPI says. More tech school students started dropping out due to higher eligibility requirements for the HOPE scholarship, which the Georgia General Assembly set in 2011. During the most recent legislative session, state Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, successfully pushed a bill, which the governor signed, that lowered the eligibility.

Georgia isn't the only state that's been struggling with funding for higher education. In March, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said that every state except for North Dakota and Wyoming is spending less money per student since the recession hit. States are spending an average of 28 percent less per student than they did in 2008, the center says. In Georgia, spending per student has decreased 29.5 percent, or $3,063, in that same time period.

The commission's recommendations are part of Deal's Complete College Georgia Initiative, which aims to produce an additional 250,000 college graduates in the state in the coming years.

Deal appointed the commission that developed the plan in October 2011 to create a new formula that would "improve higher education outcomes in the state," according to a press release. To meet expected workforce needs, Deal says, 60 percent of Georgia's population must hold a post-secondary diploma by 2020, up from the just more than 40 percent who currently do so.

"We recognized that in the state of Georgia, in order to meet job demands that will be out there in the coming years, we've got to increase the number of college graduates and certificate holders," said state Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler. Carter co-chairs the Higher Education Funding Committee with state Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainsville.

Carter said the proposed formula aims to "tie funding into performance, not just enrollment." The formula will, at the same time, also offer an incentive for adult learners and Pell Grant recipients to complete their college education, he said.

"A lot of people might have [finished] one or two years of college," Carter said. "If we could attract them back, they'll be able to complete their degrees."

He initially had concerns that the new formula would turn colleges and universities into "diploma mils."

"I don't want [colleges] to advance students and award degrees just to meet a funding formula," he said.

But, he added, he now feels reassured that this wouldn't happen because he "understands the world of academia and the independence that a lot of these professors have."

Some, though, such as state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, have expressed doubts over whether the proposal does enough to provide greater access to higher education.

"The formulas need to be changed," he said. "But that's not going to solve the problem of the tens of thousands of Georgians who aren't able to attend college because they can't afford it. ... Tweaking all the formulas in the world isn't going to get to that issue."

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