A recent report from the Southern Education Foundation addresses the ongoing debate on the role of performance-based metrics in the future of funding for public higher-education in this country. Tiffany Jones, the report's author, notes that "state policy makers should move cautiously in adopting these funding models and carefully consider the nation's most vulnerable institutions that are often serving the most neglected student populations, public MSIs [Minority Serving Institutions]."
MSIs deserve a seat at the table. Those writing policies pertaining to outcomes-based funding are not regularly including MSI leaders in these discussions. MSIs deserve a seat at the table to ensure that the complexity of their institutional context is accounted from the beginning.
Standardized metrics can be misleading. By inviting institutional leaders to the table, decision-makers will gain a stronger sense of why commonly used metrics are inappropriate and unfair to institutions that may enroll students with a less-than-desired background. For instance, consider a case in Massachusetts: UMass-Boston (an Asian American, Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution) and UMass-Amherst (the state's flagship public institution). UMass-Boston boasts a student body that is 26 percent minority, while UMass-Amherst is only 8.5 percent minority. Moreover, at UMass-Boston, 46 percent of the freshmen receive Pell Grants, whereas only 23 percent of freshmen at UMass-Amherst do. Despite significant differences in institutional resources and student enrollment characteristics, both institutions are being judged under the same rubric of performance and efficiency. There is nothing sensible about the application of uniform criteria to determine an institution's relative effectiveness.
Because MSIs enroll an increasingly diverse and complex student population, especially from their local communities, any metrics used to measure institutional effectiveness should be responsive to this population and surrounding regions. We know that students bring into college a collection of dispositions, experiences and resources that influence and shape their college and post-college outcomes. Defining and interpreting any metrics must also account for student backgrounds.
Let's not forget institutional context. Jones draws attention to the misleading claims suggesting that institutions with similar demographics should be held to comparable outcomes. In effect, institutional context (i.e. endowment, support for institutional research, data systems, etc.) has an impact on institutions' ability to both gather their own data and deliver on standardized outcomes neglecting this form of contextualization.
Reimagining how we think about equity. The author’s boldest proposition invites readers to consider alternatives to race as the primary measurement of equity; as she states it, "alternative metrics could include economic diversity (proportion of students who are Pell Grant eligible), ethnic diversity, or first generation status." Few states with performance-based funding have designed MSI-specific metrics. Yet, those who have (i.e., Arkansas and Pennsylvania) have a narrowly defined form of conceptualizing race. Using historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as an example, Jones highlights how diversity at these institutions is conceptualized by these policies as simply as the presence of non-black faculty and students. As Jones accurately suggests, these suggestions are simply not enough.
Jones's report reminds us that no output-based metric will ever serve as a panacea for the challenges faced by higher-education institutions. She joins the chorus of higher-education researchers reminding policymakers that, ultimately, context matters. Our question for all of these researchers, including us, is "When will the conversation move beyond merely 'context matters'?"
Gasman is professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Samayoa and Nguyen are Ph.D. candidates and research assistants at the Center.