Universities prioritize performance in times of scarce funding
University performance is taking precedence among higher education experts and administrators during a time when state funding is scarce.
In a recent report analyzing the top 10 higher education policy issues for 2013, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities listed “boosting institutional performance” as the most important policy issue.
Institutional performance outranked state support for higher education and tuition prices and policies, which were second and third, respectively.
Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the association, said state funding has been the top issue for the last five years.
But after the recession led to reduced funding, universities turned to other resources and performance strategies, such as improving retention and graduation rates, to move their institutions forward, he said.
Paul Hassen, spokesman for the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, said funding and efficiency are linked.
Students’ best form of defense against the rising cost of education is completing their degree in four years, he said.
“The pressure from parents and students to contain tuition increases is going to make public universities and all universities look at how courses are taught, how students learn, and how long it takes to earn a degree,” Hassen said.
Suzanne Ortega, senior vice president for academic affairs for the UNC system, said universities have been focused on ensuring their budgets align with the highest academic priorities.
The system’s Board of Governors is in the process of drafting a strategic plan that aims to increase universities’ academic quality, degree attainment and efficiency.
Strategic plans that target increasing performance are a national trend, Hurley said.
While there has been a rebound in state funding and the outlook for universities seeking state money is more optimistic, universities will still have lower financial resources than before the recession, Hurley said.
Program cuts, course reductions and increased class sizes have an effect on academic quality, he said.
“But the overarching bust in all of American higher education has been to protect the academic core of the university enterprise while cutting costs at the margins, he said.
Hurley refers to this change as the “new normal,” an era in which university leaders recognize they have entered a new economy and are attempting to operate more efficiently and secure alternative sources of revenue.
Ortega agreed that focusing on performance in an age of scant resources is the new normal for higher education.
Hurley advocates for performance-based funding and a system of providing incentives to universities for academic excellence and increasing degree completion.
“State performance-based funding is dealing not so much with ‘how much’ the state provides but rather ‘how’ they provide,” he said.
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