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Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Another higher education formula

The state Board of Governors has developed a “performance funding model” aimed at ensuring universities produce graduates ready for the workplace.

Holding universities more accountable is long overdue.

But forgive us if we’re skeptical this latest education fad, being pushed by lawmakers, will result in academic excellence and a dynamic workforce.

It’s appropriate to demand more efficiency of state universities and to ensure they meet the needs of the marketplace. But this top-down approach also could easily transform universities into degree factories focused on producing graduates who will quickly find a job, rather than helping students develop the skills needed to thrive in an ever-evolving economy.

Students, after all, should be free to follow their academic passions, rather than being pressured into seeking what state leaders deem sensible degrees.

With a metric system that rewards universities for bachelor’s degrees awarded in areas of “strategic emphasis,” including STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), universities will find ways to push students in the direction the state wants.

Yet promoting specific degrees could ultimately undermine Florida’s education quality and economic vitality. Students themselves, rather than government officials, are likely to be most adept at responding to the job market.

As Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal:

“... guessing about what will be hot tomorrow based on what’s hot today is often a fool’s errand. The problem is that the job market can change rapidly for unforeseeable reasons. Today, we frequently hear that computers and information technology are and will be the hot fields, but both have gone from boom to bust over time. Students poured into IT programs in the late 1990s, responding to the Silicon Valley boom, only to graduate after 2001 into the tech bust.”

The board and lawmakers are correct to demand more accountability, particularly on spending. Some of the metrics, such as costs per undergraduate degree and a six-year graduation rate, should promote fiscal stewardship and student focus.

Measuring the percent of bachelor’s degree graduates employed and the pay rates of baccalaureate graduates also should be useful to parents and students, though they may not necessarily reveal whether those graduates have the adaptability for a fluid marketplace.

New Chancellor Marshall Criser III stresses the measurements allow for flexibility and will recognize the different challenges of different universities. For instance, the University of South Florida, with many working students who commute, will never match the graduation rate of the University of Florida, where most students attend full-time.

Criser says schools will be able to “measure their performance against themselves,” and will be rewarded for improvement. That’s encouraging.

But cutting a portion of the base funding for schools that don’t measure up and reallocating those funds to high-performing universities seems likely to fragment the system into winners and losers — without regard for the impact on students.

Criser is confident “data-based” performance funding will benefit students, taxpayers and the economy. We hope he’s right. But the experiment should be monitored closely. Don’t be surprised if Florida’s future marketplace needs elude government formula.

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