CSCU: An imperfect system searching for perfection

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On Feb. 9, 2011, the Office of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy distributed a press release on his plans to overhaul higher education that empowers local campuses and directs more money to teaching.

The governor’s announcement was “a sweeping plan to overhaul the state’s higher education governance and structure to provide more resources for classroom teaching and instruction to help increase the number of students receiving degrees. Gov. Malloy’s plan will empower Connecticut State University System and community college local campuses without closing or combining them, while at the same time, saving taxpayers and students tens of millions of dollars over time.”

The press release further states: “The facts are clear: every state is growing in the percentage of adults with degrees, but Connecticut’s rate of increase for young adults has dropped to 34th out of 50 states. Tuition has increased, and the time it takes to earn a degree at these institutions exceeds the traditional four or two-year curriculum. In addition, the Connecticut State University System and community colleges in Connecticut spend less of their total operating budget on teaching than comparable northeastern states. We need to make sure we’re preparing our young men and women to have a competitive edge and at the moment we’re not doing a good enough job.”

The governor’s press release also charged the newly formed Board of Regents to:

  1. Develop a formula to distribute taxpayer support to campuses on the basis of enrollment, attainment of identified policy goals, and other factors.
  2.  Require the Board to develop annual reports on student outcomes such as retention and graduation; financial issues including allocation of resources across function (education, administration, etc.); analysis of costs and revenues on an academic program basis; an affordability index based on median Connecticut family household income; enrollment and completions on a program basis; transfer of credits across institutions; and employment and earning outcomes of graduates (in partnership with the state Department of Labor).

Taken at face value, the governor’s 2011 press release would seem to indicate that the Connecticut State College and University System (the new combined system) has potential but is underperforming. To improve campus performance the governor’s press release pledges more resources for classroom teaching and instruction and at the same time saving taxpayers and students tens of millions of dollars over time.  

Last month I distributed an article to Connecticut’s major newspapers on performance-based funding. Performance-based funding dates back more than 30 years with advocates, like me, often pointing to the advantages that include providing a stable/predictable source of funding, maintaining affordability and access with stable tuition, acknowledging a state/student cost-sharing partnership; and limiting the political considerations in funding decisions.

The supporters also point to performance-based funding as a means to affect institutional behavior so as to reward innovation and improvement in productivity. Performance-based funding also assigns an academic cost factor for the type and level of academic programs that acknowledges high cost programs like nursing, teacher education, engineering, dentistry, and medicine and assigns a higher indexed cost factor formula per student credit hour. In theory, the academic cost factor will normalize state funding for similar academic programs regardless of the type of institution or system.

The governor is right to advocate for accountability from the system and the Board of Regents. Performance-based funding is a national model that has the principles of accountability and responsibility and when implemented effectively has improved campus performance.

The governor is right to advocate less time to earn a degree. Therefore, legislative action should mandate that all associate and baccalaureate degree programs at public colleges and universities should be offered at 60 or 120 academic credits respectively except in case in which accreditation require additional credits. A policy to eliminate excess credit hours could reduce the time to degree for many students as well as reduce the cost to earn a degree.

The governor is right to advocate for stronger college-ready partnerships with high schools. A state-wide higher education policy should be implemented among the University of Connecticut System and the Connecticut State College and University System to consistently award college level credit for Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, Dual and Concurrent enrollment courses for high school students thereby reducing time for an associate and/or baccalaureate degree.

The governor is right to direct the Board of Regents to develop a plan to increase Connecticut’s education attainment. Legislative action should mandate policy among the community colleges and public four-year universities to establish reverse transfer degree credit programs to boost graduation rates and increase Connecticut citizenry with an academic credential.

The governor is right to advocate for ease of transfer credits. Legislative action should mandate a state-wide policy between the University of Connecticut System and the Connecticut State College and University System on transfer credits. College level credit earned at a community college should be accepted and applied toward a major at all public four-year universities and college level credit earned at a four year university should be accepted and applied toward a major at another Connecticut public four year university regardless of the system.

The governor is right to mandate degree programs that are relevant to the economy. Legislative mandate should require the periodic review of low enrollment and low completer academic programs every three years. The productivity policy should determine a standard for continuation, consolidation or termination. The productivity policy might require a three-year average for associate and baccalaureate degree programs of 24 graduates or eight per year; Post-Baccalaureate and Masters of five graduates per year or 15 over a three-year period; and Professional and Doctoral of two graduates per year or six over a three-year period.

The governor is right to demand accountability from the Board of Regents. However, the Board has been very slow to provide the detailed data that is necessary to demonstrate to the public that the CSCU System performance on appropriate indicators is improving.

The governor is also right to demand from the Board of Regents a financial analysis on resources across institutional functions as well as an analysis of cost and revenues on an academic program basis. Once again, performance based funding provides the context for both of these critical planning objectives.

The governor is also right that more financial resources and personnel should be directed to the colleges and universities and less to the system office. After all, the campus is the main event where the teaching, instruction, student learning, and degrees are awarded.

The Connecticut Legislators have the responsibility to decide if the governor’s plan makes sense and to fund the plan. On the other hand if the plan does not make sense or cannot be funded, then the plan should be revised.

Perhaps the CSCU System is imperfect in the eyes of some. But the 17 colleges and universities have a perfect foundation in which to build upon. They have a dedicated, committed, knowledgeable and expert faculty, instructors, and lecturers; staff who go above and beyond the call of duty every day to assist students; and a student body that has a yearning to learn and a willingness to make personal and financial sacrifices to earn an academic credential in pursuit of a better life.

Imperfect on the road to perfection. It is not as complicated as many would think. I have provided five recommendations, six if you include performance-based funding, which, if implemented, would dramatically improve the CSCU System and meet the governor’s expectations. I may not often agree with some of the governor’s initiatives, but, in this case it has been the Board of Regents and the Legislature that has been slow to react.

Michael Gargano is the former provost and senior vice president for academic and student affairs for the Connecticut State College and University System. 

 

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