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Blog: Measure What Matters: Time for Higher Education to Revisit This Important Lesson

Posted on May 23, 2018 by  in Blog

Senior Partner, Cosgrove & Associates

If one accepts Peter Drucker’s premise that “what gets measured, gets managed,” then two things are apparent: measurement is valuable, but measuring the wrong thing has consequences. Data collection efforts focusing on the wrong metrics lead to mismanagement and failure to recognize potential opportunities. Focusing on the right measures matters. For example, in Moneyball, Michael Lewis describes how the Oakland Athletics improved their won-loss record by revising player evaluation metrics to more fully understand players’ potential to score runs.

The higher education arena has equally high stakes concerning evaluation. A growing number of states (more than 30 in 2017)[1] have adopted performance funding systems to allocate higher education funding. Such systems focus on increasing the number of degree completers and have been fueled by calls for increased accountability. The logic of performance funding seems clear: Tie funding to the achievement of performance metrics, and colleges will improve their performance. However, research suggests we might want to re-examine this logic.  In “Why Performance-Based College Funding Doesn’t Work,” Nicholas Hillman found little to no evidence to support the connection between performance funding and improved educational outcomes.

Why are more states jumping on the performance-funding train? States are under political pressure, with calls for increased accountability and limited taxpayer dollars. But do the chosen performance metrics capture the full impact of education? Do the metrics result in more efficient allocation of state funding? The jury may be still out on these questions, but Hillman’s evidence suggests the answer is no.

The disconnect between performance funding and improved outcomes may widen even more when one considers open-enrollment colleges or colleges that serve a high percentage of adult, nontraditional, or low-income students. For example, when a student transfers from a community college (without a two-year degree) to a four-year college, should that behavior count against the community college’s degree completion metric? Might that student have been well-served by their time at the lower-cost college? When community colleges provide higher education access to adult students who enroll on a part-time basis, should they be penalized for not graduating such students within the arbitrary three-year time period? Might those students and that community have been well-served by access to higher education?

To ensure more equitable and appropriate use of performance metrics, college and states would be well-served to revisit current performance metrics and more clearly define appropriate metrics and data collection strategies. Most importantly, states and colleges should connect the analysis of performance metrics to clear and funded pathways for improvement. Stepping back to remember that the goal of performance measurement is to help build capacity and improve performance will place both parties in a better position to support and evaluate higher education performance in a more meaningful and equitable manner.

[1] Jones, T., & Jones, S. (2017, November 6). Can equity be bought? A look at outcomes-based funding in higher ed [Blog post].