Should Florida level the playing field for university performance funding?

Florida A&M 2003 graduation. Photo by Steven M. Cummings, Wikimedia Commons

Florida has handed out nearly $1 billion in special “performance funding” to its public universities since the fall of 2014.

But Florida A&M University, one of the largest and oldest historically black universities in the country, has received less than two percent of that funding – just $17 million. Compare that to the University of Florida, which has received  $214 million in state performance funding since 2014; Florida State University, which got $167 million; and the University of South Florida, which got $157 million.

The state funding disparity stands in contrast to Florida A&M’s national reputation – U.S. News & World Report’s annual college rankings list Florida A&M second on the list of America’s top public historically black colleges and universities.

A major factor in Florida A&M’s funding challenges is that for three of the five years that the state has been handing out the performance dollars to its universities, the school has faced a financial penalty due to the way the state divides up the dollars.

The state’s funding model is based on an annual evaluation of ten performance measurements, including student costs, graduation rates, what salaries recent graduates earn, and how well a university retains students. Under that model, Florida A&M has fallen into the “bottom three” of the state universities for three out of five years. And schools that fall into the “bottom three” don’t get any state performance funding.

Florida A&M supporters say the state’s formula should be changed to recognize the unique characteristics of the school – and that they aren’t the only institution that suffers under the current formula.

For instance, Florida A&M has the highest percentage of students in the university system that rely on federal Pell grants – nearly 63 percent – an indication that they come from lower-income families. Many Florida A&M students are the first members of their family to attend a university. And many students have to work to supplement their financial aid, making it more difficult to graduate within four years.

A better model, some university officials say, might be to have individual schools set goals and reach them – rather than pit different schools against one other for limited state dollars.

Overall, the state handed out $265 million in performance funding this year. Since the program began, some $985 million in state performance funding has been doled out to schools. UF, FSU, and USF accounted for 55 percent of the total funding over the last five years.

But three schools have only received $31 million (3 percent), of the total performance funding: Florida A&M, along with New College of Florida ($2.5 million), and the University of North Florida ($11.5 million). All of those schools fell into the “bottom three” this year and have faced the penalty in at least three of the last five years.

The use of a “bottom three” penalty has been controversial since its inception.

And this week, the state Board of Governors is scheduled to formally adopt revised regulations to eliminate the penalty. The board, which oversees the state university system, debated the issue and agreed to adopt the new funding formula last fall.

Testifying before a Florida House subcommittee last week, state university system Chancellor Marshall Criser explained the rationale behind using financial incentives when the formula was first devised in 2014.

“I honestly believed that coming into this we had universities that needed a jump start,” Criser said. “Quite frankly at that time in 2014, you could clearly see that we were enrolling students that I don’t believe we could reasonably argue that we expected to succeed.”

From the beginning, Criser said the performance-funding formula has been centered on holding institutions to higher standards so students succeed. He also said the use of the performance-funding formula – despite the controversy – has sparked improvements at the 11 schools that participate in the program.

From 2013 to 2017, the four-year graduation rate among those 11 universities has increased five percent, according to the Board of Governors.

At the 10,000-student Florida A&M, the four-year graduation rate nearly doubled during that time (rising from 11.8 percent to just under 22 percent). It’s still well below the system-wide average graduation rate of 49 percent, but Florida A&M officials have set a goal of reaching a 38 percent four-year graduation rate by 2021.

Another key measurement the state uses to dole out performance funding – academic progress – considers how many full-time first-year university students remain in school for the following year with at least a 2.0 grade point average.

In four years, Florida A&M’s academic progress rate climbed by seven percent. It has set a goal of 88 percent by 2021. The current system-wide average for academic progress is 87.5 percent.

Democratic State Rep. Ramon Alexander, a former Florida A&M student body president, said he would like to see further changes in the funding formula.

“All of our institutions play a unique role,” Alexander said in an interview with the Florida Phoenix.

He said the funding formula should be sensitive to the missions and the students served by each state university.

Alexander said he has no problem identifying three schools – FSU, UF and USF – as “pre-eminent” universities that deserve additional funding on top of the performance funds – especially if it allows those schools to elevate their profiles as national research institutions.

But what he objects to is comparing schools like UF with other institutions like Florida A&M or the University of North Florida, which all have different types of missions and students.

“You’re comparing apples to oranges,” Alexander said. “I think what we have to do is we have to come up with an individual institution model, a continuous improvement model where we set metrics for the institutions to be judged and graded based off their capacity and their ability.”

Another key reform, he said: Florida should measure its institutions against their national peers.

The state Board of Governors meets Wednesday and Thursday at Florida International University in Miami.

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