Florida has a new system for how it funds its universities. Now, state-run colleges have to prove they are properly preparing students for the workforce once they graduate. However, this new funding model had a somewhat unintended consequence. One of the colleges that scored lowest in this model--and is now facing steep financial penalties—is one of the state’s highest nationally-ranked schools.
New College of Florida is among three state schools that will not be receiving additional performance funding this year.
The small liberal arts college, which sits on an elaborate estate that used to belong to one of the Ringling Brothers, is known for teaching quirky yet very studious college students.
Suzanne Sherman, New College’s Faculty Chair, said the school draws in a certain kind of student.
“The average student at New College really wants to learn,” she said. “They are curious about the world around them. They are fairly exploratory people. They are interested in a variety of subjects. They tend to be lifelong learners.”
The school is very different from most of the state colleges. For one, it is tailored for these kinds of students. For example, there are no grades here. Every student gets what the school calls a “narrative evaluation” when they finish a class. Learning – not grades—is the focus.
Jessica Loeb starts her senior year at New College in the fall. She said it’s been a great experience so far.
“It’s fun,” she said. “You get to be free and young here and explore yourself. But you learn a lot.”
So far, the school has had good results. The Princeton Review recently rated New College the second-best valued public university in the country. U.S. News and World Report ranked it the fifth-best public liberal arts college nationwide. Such ratings happen all the time.
But, the school has also recently got some bad scores from the state of Florida. Because of a new performance based funding model, New College could lose out on a lot of money.
The scores themselves are also raising eyebrows. Dr. John Collins went to New College in the early 90’s. He recently finished a stint as the chief of staff of a local hospital in Sarasota and is now helping the state move towards electronic medical records. Collins said the state scores are baffling.
“New College is absolutely recognized nationally as a thought leader, as a producer of high quality education and high quality students,” he said. “My first thoughts were that the measures must be off and that they weren’t measure the right things.”
Officials are looking at a host of specific things they say point to whether a school is doing good job. Among other things, they are looking at how many students in each of the 12 state universities are getting jobs in Florida-- or going to grad school a year after graduating. They’re also looking at how much money students make in their first job.
Marshall Criser, the chancellor of the State University System of Florida, said this model is a way to make sure schools are being held accountable to taxpayers.
“As public universities we have a responsibility to demonstrate to Florida that we value the investments they make,” Criser said.
Tying higher education funding to some sort of performance standard has become really popular. About half of the country already has a similar system in place.
Kevin Dougherty researches education policy at Columbia University. He’s been studying these funding models for a few years. He said a lot of things led to this. First, college and economic achievement has become more linked over the past several years. Also, state budgets for higher education are now leaner. So, lawmakers across the country have had to make the case for the money they spend.
“Part of it is also there had been over the last 20 years a growing discourse that really talks about ‘you know we should be managing public agencies in a much more different way—in a much more entrepreneurial business oriented sort of way,’” Dougherty explained. “All of this came together to make a lot of states think that performance funding would be a very attractive way to go.”
But Dougherty said for these models to work, the metrics have to be chosen carefully. He said if they are not, it could have some unintended consequences.
In New College’s case, many students leave Florida for a job, which hurt the school using the state’s metric. Officials also point out that students tend to take a year off before going to grad school, which Loeb says happens all the time.
“You know, you need a year off because the college here is really rigorous,” she explained. “It’s like having a private school type education at the public school level, a master’s level education at the undergrad.”
According to surveys conducted by the school, about one-third of New College graduates attend grad school within one year of graduating, but almost two-thirds attend within five years. But, because the state’s metrics look at one year out, New College took a hit in that category, too.
Even though the school is out almost $700,000 because of the scores, they are hopeful they can do better. New College officials are also working to recoup some other state funds that were lost because of their low score. New College President Donal O’Shea said the scores are unfortunate, but he understands where the state is coming from.
“It’s really hard to measure the outcomes of education,” he said. “For one thing, students themselves want very different things and they want different things from different points in their life. I think the state has the entirely laudable goal of trying to figure out where excellence is and try to increase that.”
Criser said the state might also consider tweaking those metrics in the future. For example, the state might start counting students who get jobs out of state. In the meantime, New College officials have said they are working on improving their scores in metrics they say they should be doing better in. That is, without compromising New College’s mission and unique personality.