Will State University Systems Punish Underperforming Schools?

From California to Texas, the future may belong to outcomes-based funding.

The California State University System is implementing a plan that will encourage universities to hit enrollment targets, but at great cost. In January, Cal State leaders announced the blueprints for the new strategy. As Inside Higher Ed reported, the plan will pull five percent of enrollment funding from colleges that fall short of their enrollment targets by 10 percent or more. This puts several Cal State colleges in a tricky situation.

According to Cal Matters, the seven colleges that are underperforming in enrollment are CSU Channel Islands, Chico State, Cal State East Bay, Cal Poly Humboldt, Cal Maritime, Sonoma State, and San Francisco State. Since these colleges are already struggling to enroll students, some concerns have arisen about the plan to kick schools while they’re already down. According to board members, the details of the plan are not final, and the goal is not to punish schools but to encourage growth. Nevertheless, the blueprints for the plan have not yet been changed, and its implementation is scheduled for 2025.

Will campuses intentionally enroll non-college-ready students in an attempt to boost their numbers?Cal State’s new strategy could very well be the future for university systems across America if enrollment rates continue to decline. Because of the looming demographic cliff for college-age Americans, there will soon be fewer incoming college students than in previous years. This will result in colossal enrollment pressures if schools wish to remain up and running.

To be sure, California’s plan has a few potential benefits, such as increasing schools’ competitive advantages as they invest in innovation to pull enrollment rates up. However, looking at the bigger picture, the new strategy could well lead to increasingly dire budgetary situations. Under-enrolled institutions already face financial pressures. To undermine schools’ budgetary footing further, as Cal State’s plan threatens to do, may be to introduce a financial death-spiral. Some of the schools under enrollment pressure may ultimately close or require expensive bailouts.

It should be noted that Cal State’s plan isn’t the only one of its kind. Recently, Texas unveiled a new strategy that seems to be an offshoot of California’s plan. As Higher Ed Dive describes, the Texas plan institutes a process whereby student outcomes are the deciding factor for community-college funding. These outcomes include the number of “credentials of value” colleges award, the number of students who transfer to four-year colleges, and the number of students who complete dual-credit classes. Such performance-based metrics seem to be spreading across the U.S., as Oregon is also intending to head down a similar path with its community colleges.

If Cal State and other university systems implement outcomes-based funding, new problems could arise. (Among them: Will campuses intentionally enroll non-college-ready students in an attempt to boost their numbers?) However, these initiatives could also do good. In any case, genuine community growth will be hard to come by unless colleges begin once more to offer true education and training, not just credentialing.

Maggie Szura is an intern at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and a junior studying psychology at Rollins College.