The Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System, is working with the Legislature and the governor to secure additional dollars for higher education through a model known as “performance funding.” Under this model, a portion of university funding would no longer be dependent on only the number of students in chairs, but also on outcomes that are important for our students, families and communities: areas like graduation rates, retention rates and post-graduation success. While flexible enough to acknowledge each university’s unique mission, the model, based on 10 metrics, establishes a minimum level of performance and rewards universities that meet certain high-standard benchmarks or demonstrate year-over-year improvement. In short, the model is intended to define to our students and their families what it means to attend a Florida university.
There are several areas in which our system and our institutions excel, and many of our universities are among the best in the country. But as I peel back from system averages, I see that national-level accomplishments for some institutions are masking data from other universities that are a cause for concern. At some of our institutions, for example, as many as one in three students has not maintained a 2.0 GPA by his or her sophomore year (this is a critical mark for success or failure). Furthermore, half of our universities have four-year graduation rates below 30 percent; and one-third of our students require excess hours, above the 110 percent cap, to complete an undergraduate degree. Those numbers raise the question: If our everyday challenge is to best serve our students and families, what do we owe them on things like access, student support resources and the ability to embark on a meaningful career after graduation? Those standards are important, not only because they measure academic quality and student success, but because they reflect our effectiveness as stewards of public dollars, and impact the total cost and debt that our students and their families assume for education. I’d also like to address one of the model’s more controversial elements: requiring universities to achieve at a certain minimum standard, or else risk 1 percent of their existing funds. This aspect of the model is unique. But it is designed to create a strong incentive for our universities to focus and improve. Base budgets, as they’re known, are supposed to be a planning tool, not an entitlement. More than ever before, private institutions, state colleges and national universities are competing for the attention and investment of students and policy makers. Our elected leaders have responded to that challenge by calling upon our state universities to introduce a level of accountability that is familiar to the private sector. One in which businesses, divisions, and employees earn more or less based on their performance. As a system, we have collective strengths in centers of excellence, technology, and academic renown, but we expose ourselves if we fall short on access, quality of the education experience, efficiency in obtaining a degree, or assisting our students in connecting their degree and their interests to a job and a career. That brings us back around to what it means to be a Florida university. As defined by the Board of Governors’ proposed model, here is what it means: Where we are strong we must celebrate. And where we can improve, we have an absolute obligation to do so for our students, our communities and our state. Marshall Criser III is chancellor of the State University System.