A Policy-Wonk-In-Training’s Reactions to Kasich’s Latest “Bold” Idea

December 10, 2012
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Just as I finished writing on Nov. 30 about Chicago’s public school reform and what it means for Ohio, Governor Kasich unveiled a “bold” new plan for funding Ohio’s public universities. (Am I psychic, or what?) I didn’t have time to sit down with details until late last week, though, and I’m suddenly a little more worried than before.

What Kasich and his posse of university presidents laid out is indeed unique: funding formulas tied to state colleges’ graduation rates, which are pretty low in Ohio. The graduate rates would be measured based on what proportion of students graduate within 150% of the time normally required to complete a program – so a six-year timeframe for most universities – and would result in as much as 50% of a school’s funds from the state being directly tied to graduation rates. The result would, ideally, be universities competing to raise their graduation rates through innovative means, with an increased slice of the state funding pie being the proverbial carrot on a stick.

Overall, it’s a vague plan so far, with university administrators not going into specifics about how exactly they would go about raising graduation rates. They’ve said they’ll implement a system that protects against artificial grade inflation and easy-to-pass classes at universities, minimizing the risk of abuse.

However, it looks like it could disproportionately harm community colleges and open-enrollment universities like Youngstown State University, where some students enroll then drop out very quickly. And the plan does result in a “merit pay” type funding strategy for our universities as a whole, which is obviously enough to make any progressive nervous.

Research shows that graduation rates in Ohio are tied to two main things: money and race. If you (read: your parents) have more money, you’re more likely to graduate within the timeframe mapped out by the plan. If you’re a minority, you’re less likely to graduate. And if you’re a first-generation student (which, statistically speaking, is likely to be both low-income and a racial minority) your likelihood of graduating is low as well.

So the question then becomes whether new graduation-increasing measures will target all students – in other words, academic-minded “graduation machine” tactics – or will focus on college affordability and difficulties faced by first-generation and minority students. The former is not inherently bad, but if you merely increase the intensity of existing academic measures, soon enough something will either backfire or simply stop working. And with tuition always increasing, there will always be a point where low-income students simply step back and say “enough is enough.”

In a neat little coincidence-but-not-really, the board of Regents-backed Complete College Ohio task force released their recommendations in November as well, and while the report has a few solid ideas, it mostly glosses over the struggles of minority and low-income students. Here’s a damning little section from page 27 of the report:

“[We should] enhance the clarity, comprehensiveness and accessibility of information available to students and their families about the true and full cost of a college education; options and resources for planning for and paying for a college education; and simplified fee structures and flexible payment plans designed to overcome common financial obstacles to earning a college degree.

As student loan debt and defaults are skyrocketing and on the verge of becoming a national crisis, the importance of financial literacy programs is imperative. An Institute of Higher Education Policy study finds that institutional practices and programs such as financial literacy can be instrumental in mitigating default and improving borrower behavior.” (emphasis mine)

In other words: be transparent about the costs, but don’t bother doing anything to lower them, because our bloated administrator paychecks depend on it, okay? And from later on in the report, on page 59:

“[We should] package financial aid to promote completion, such as holding back some portions of aid or increasing it as a student nears completion.” (emphasis mine)

Yeah, because that won’t blow up in your faces at all. The report only makes a single mention of part-time students, who often juggle work and school only to never graduate, and never brings up the idea of actually reducing college costs. It’s the sorriest policy paper this Public Affairs major has ever read, that’s for sure.

While I won’t fully write off Kasich’s little brainchild just yet, I’m going to be watching like a hawk to make sure he doesn’t take a privilege-ignoring, austerity-laden route with this. If the same guys promoting the plan are the same guys who wrote the unintelligent  task force recommendations, then my respect for all of them just fell through the floor.

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