College Officials’ Excuses Costing Students and Taxpayers

Finishing college shouldn’t be so hard. Completing challenging classes and mastering advanced material plus working to pay for increasingly expensive degrees is tough enough. But some institutions make it even harder for undergraduates because of their own shoddy administration.

Sacramento State undergraduate Starlight Trotter is starting her fifth year and shared her travails in a recent Sacramento Bee article.

“The 23-year-old psychology major thought she would be a counselor or therapist by now. Instead, she’s still in college and a student assistant in the theater arts department,” according to the Bee. “I just want to get out of here,” said Trotter, but students struggle to get into the over-packed classes they need to graduate on time.

“Just 8 percent of first-time, degree-seeking Sacramento State students who started classes in 2007 graduated in 2011, the lowest four-year graduation rate in a decade, according to data from the college,” the Bee reported.

The tragedy is that Trotter did everything she was supposed to do. She worked hard in high school and earned several scholarships, which have now run out because she’s had to stay in school so long. Trotter also works and uses financial aid to pay for her degree. But here’s the catch: unable to get into the classes she needs to graduate, she instead attends classes she doesn’t need to just keep her financial aid.

In a separate editorial, the Sacramento Bee (rightly) called Sacramento State’s graduation rate “abysmal and unacceptable.” Sacramento State officials have responded in the past by blaming students for not being academically prepared, having to work, and enrolling in the wrong classes. They also blame the legislature for cutting funding.

Hooey. It was Sac State’s choice to admit unprepared students. In response to the down economy, institutions that depend on public subsidies need to tighten their belts—just like the taxpayers who fund those subsidies are doing.

It’s was also Sac State’s choice to continue offering degree programs they couldn’t fill but continued paying for by pulling funds from other programs (called cross-subsidization). And, it was Sac State’s choice not to cut those programs at the expense of over-enrolled programs such as Trotter’s.

According to data reported to the U.S. Department of Education, Sac State’s core revenue in 2010 exceeded $350 million: $113 from tuition and fees; $128 from state appropriations; $72 million from government grants and contracts; nearly $1 million in private gifts, grants, and contracts; almost $2 million in investment income; and another $41 million in other core revenue.

All that money works out to more than $15,000 per full-time student. If Sac State, or any other public institution for that matter, cannot fulfill their obligation to provide undergraduates with the courses they need for their degrees, then they should return funds to students and taxpayers.

It is also worth noting that if Sac State were a for profit institution, the legislature, state and departments would be demanding investigations for such mismanagement.

To avoid such mismanagement in the future, the California legislature should enact some common-sense reforms. Put an end to lump-sum state appropriations. Instead award appropriations to students directly in the form of grants that students could take to any California postsecondary institution, public or private, of their choice—about $5,500 based on Sac State’s appropriation levels.

If institutions wanted their share of state appropriations, then they’d have to improve their graduation and management track-records to attract and keep students—along with their state appropriation funding.

Another related reform is instituting outcomes-based appropriations. Rather than throwing good money after bad at mismanaged institutions, which leaves less funding for well managed ones, a certain percentage of funds should be awarded based on the number of students who successfully graduate on time.

Ohio adopted an outcomes-based funding system that was enacted in 2009. Today, 5 percent of community college funding and 10 percent of four-year university funding is based on outcomes, including degree and course completion plus incentives for course completion in STEM subjects and for at-risk students.

Tennessee has been using outcomes-based funding the longest, since the 1970s. There is a 40 percent weight on Pell-eligible students (so each counts for 1.4 students) if they graduate to help promote student success without restricting access.

Louisiana and Indiana also have outcomes-based funding systems for both four- and two-year institutions.

All postsecondary institutions must fulfill their obligation to undergraduates and taxpayers to use public funds responsibly and graduate students on time. Stronger accountability from the legislature in the form of better funding incentives, and more freedom for students to take their public education dollars to institutions that will get the job done are sensible first steps.

Vicki E. Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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