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Friday, January 11, 2013

You'll Get What We're Paid For?

California governor Jerry "Yeah, well I dated Linda Ronstadt when she was hot, Bee-otch!" Brown has presented his initial 2013 budget.  The whole budget announcement is a fairly ritualistic procedure.  The governor makes a speech.  Quite a bit of pageantry revolves around whether or not he sees his shadow.  If he does, the budget goes on to the legislature, where it is sliced, diced, poked, prodded, probed, shredded, tickled, massaged, deboned, fricaseed, lightly-breaded, and finally served on bed of romaine lettuce, before being voted on by the legislature.  Dancing follows.

For a change, the proposed budget contains some good news on the educational front, including an infusion of nearly $200 million for the community college system.  What we ultimately end up with won't be known for several months, but the fact that a new semester begins not with talk of impending cuts but with a mandate to grow is certainly refreshing.

Changes loom, too.  One of the biggest involves funding formulas: how community colleges earn their budgets.  Currently, colleges receive funding ("apportionment") based on the number of students they enroll.  Specifically, each college presents its census--the number of students enrolled in classes--to the state as of about the third or fourth week of each semester.  The state then "reimburses" a fixed amount per student to each college.  Regardless of other budget changes, this "per student" allocation will likely continue, but there is talk of changing criteria from enrollment to completion: Colleges would receive apportionment based on the number of students who complete degrees or certificates, rather than simply on the number of warm bodies in seats.

Certainly, this argument has some merit.  One can see the current system's potentially perverse incentives: If a college receives funding for each student enrolled, then administrators could push staff to increase the number of registrations, regardless of any individual student's readiness for classes.  Once the census-date passes, it matters little whether students remain in class or not--or whether they succeed--as the college has already received its funding for these students.  The taxpaying public might understandably prefer a system that rewards success.

I can assure you that most college instructors don't enjoy seeing students disappear (well, MOST students, anyway), and we want students to succeed.  In principle, a system that aligns apportionment with student achievement aligns incentives with what everyone wants anyway.  But student achievement depends on factors beyond an instructors--or, indeed, a college's--control.  Indeed, at a community college, the very definition of "success" is multi-faceted: Funding may be based on degree and certificate completion, but what about students who aren't seeking such things? What about a new immigrant who simply wants to take ESL classes?  What about the student who spends a semester at a community college and then quickly transfers to a four-year school or university?  Are these students and others like them "failures"?  Should community colleges be financially penalized for serving them?

These questions will need to be considered and debated (and lightly-breaded and fricaseed) in the months and years ahead.  For now, though, I seize this opportunity to feel guardedly optimistic.  Lord knows we've waited long enough.

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