New Metrics for California Higher Education

Governor Brown’s proposed budget in 2013 included the idea of tying increases in funding for  the two public four-year university systems to performance targets. Under his original plan, the University of California (UC), with its nine undergraduate campuses and 184,000 students, and the California State University (CSU), with its 23 campuses and 308,000 undergraduates, would need to show ten percent improvement on each of seven measures to receive the full budget allocation in future years. The proposed measures and targets came late in the budget process, however, so there was not adequate time to refine them to satisfy concerns and address potential unintended consequences.

Ultimately, the budget passed by the legislature adopts the governor’s measures and several more, but does not set targets attached to future funding. The next steps appear to be for the governor’s staff and other policy makers to work with the colleges (including the community colleges) to develop those targets in the coming months, for implementation with later budgets.

The new indicators, not in the governor’s original request, are notable because they include three measures of efficiency. Two of them involve money: spending per degree, and spending on undergraduates per bachelor’s degree. The analysts will learn a lot when they start diving into these numbers, though they will be disappointed if they want answers to the question of whether the systems are as efficient as they could be.  CSU looks extremely efficient, partly because the faculty takes on large teaching loads, and partly due to the large number of students who show up as juniors (the costs are at the community colleges, not in the CSU budget).  As a research university, UC spends a lot. But separating out spending on undergraduates is not an easy task. How much of the cost of the chemistry labs should be allocated to undergraduate education? There are no standards ways of figuring it out or comparing to other universities, so someone will have to develop an approach. (Still, we need to start somewhere. There’s a lengthy report from the National Research Council on this topic for those who are interested).

The systems will look at the total number of credits that bachelor’s degree recipients have amassed. Comparing the total for transfer and for native students may begin to help determine why there seems to be so much waste (students taking more than the required number of units), and may lead to logical targets for reducing the total for each group.

The governor’s original proposal did not include enrollment measures except for transfer students. The final version includes measures of both transfer students and low-income students as a proportion of total undergraduate enrollment. Notable in its absence is enrollment of California residents, which should be included to prevent the colleges from raising revenue by expanding out-of-state enrollment at the expense of in-state enrollment.  In setting targets, policy makers should consider using data on the numbers of students graduating high school each year.

Degrees in science and engineering are to be reported separately, an important move since we would not want measures of efficiency to drive colleges to reduce investments in programs that continue to increasing in importance to the economy but cost much more to deliver.

Four-year graduation rates are also included as measures, despite the somewhat misguided opposition of the CSU system, where the current rate is 16 percent.  (Why oppose the idea that some of the students who started as full-time students and now graduate in five and six years could have done so in four, particularly if we remain concerned – as the Governor has indicated he is – about the overall costs of a degree?).  A creative new addition is an on-track-to-graduation measure: the proportion of students who complete their freshmen year with enough units to graduate in four years. While the credits will not necessarily track to the requirements for the student’s ultimate major, it is a useful measure and will be a useful indicator to use at the community colleges.

The adoption of these measures represents an important recognition by policy makers that we should not blindly toss money in the direction of the colleges. We need to be clearer about what it is we want from the colleges, both for the investment of tax dollars and for the student and parent tuition dollars. Identifying some measures is a step in the right direction. Now comes the hard part: figuring out what we want those numbers to mean, and how we want them to change over time.

Issues: More College Degrees