Filed Under:

A Carrot For College Performance: More Money

Play associated audio

For a long time, most public colleges and universities have gotten their funding based on how many students they enroll: More students mean more money.

But economic pressures have convinced states they should only reward results that help students — and the state's economy.

Tennessee is a leader among states trying to peg funding to the number of students who actually graduate.

Getting Education To Do More For The State

The food court at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville is bright and airy. Students can pick which music video they want to watch while they eat. It isn't hard to lure students to colleges like this one; what's difficult is getting them to graduate.

Only about half of the students at Tennessee Tech will get a degree within six years from this school. The rest will transfer or drop out. Until now, Tennessee Tech had no financial incentive to do anything about that.

As budgets grow tighter, Tennessee is realizing it needs better returns from its investment in education. So last year, the state passed the Complete College Tennessee Act.

College funding will rise and fall depending mostly on the number of students who graduate. Tennessee Tech's $35 million in state funding this year will go up, or down, based solely on whether students are succeeding. The initiative is only about a year old, but it's already getting attention where it matters.

Designing The Campus Around Student Success

The library at Tennessee Tech was once full of books, but the school decided the books could go elsewhere. It was more important to renovate the space and turn it into an inviting Learning Commons. On a recent afternoon, it was full of students working together at tables.

"It is much more flexible in its use, and I think student traffic is up considerably," says Paul Semmes, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

The school hopes that the buzz of conversation is about classwork — that students in the Pi Square math zone are collaborating on math.

It's a way of keeping students at this engineering and technical school from becoming isolated. Semmes notes that "even though the library is not as quiet as before, they're getting things done."

Like working together on projects, which has been shown to keep students engaged and in school.

Now, faculty have always talked about ways to help students succeed," Semmes says. "We know it's important," he says. "We have always known it was important."

But the new funding formula has made that goal, of student success, a priority.

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission says the funding formula has already resulted in more discussion among colleges of ways to help students complete their degrees. Tennessee Tech has also built classrooms that encourage collaborative learning.

Living And Learning In The Same Space

The school is also picking up on research that says it makes sense to blend learning and living. Now, all dorms here are being turned into Living and Learning Villages.

Andrew Smith, who teaches English, meets students in a dorm known as Tree House, instead of holding office hours.

"Before we had learning villages, we didn't mingle very much," he says. "This is where the students lived, and if they want to see me, they came to my office on the academic side of campus."

Tree House is focused on environmental issues. Smith organizes discussion topics and field trips centered on that theme.

Now, Tennessee and other states have experimented with performance-based funding before. But many experts say there was simply not enough money at stake for schools to make big changes.

David Wright, with the state's Higher Education Commission, hopes that with all funding tied to student success, schools will find it very expensive to ignore the issue.

"The funding itself provides incentives for campus leaders to take a hard look at which programs are being productive and which ones are not, and say, 'Maybe it's not in our best interests to be in this business of this program anymore at this school,' " he says.

Tennessee Tech has already seen a slight boost in funding, tied to improvements in student performance. But it will take time to show whether these new programs can make a major dent in college dropout rates.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

The King Of Zydeco, The Supremes, Merle Haggard Among Recordings Joining Library Of Congress

Each year the Library of Congress adds certain sound recordings as national treasures. Curator of Recorded Sound Matthew Barton explains the cultural significance of this year's selections.
NPR

'Sweetbitter' Is A Savory Saga Of Restaurant Life And Love

Oysters, cocaine, fine wine, love triangles: Stephanie Danler's debut novel Sweetbitter follows a year in the life of a young woman working at a top-tier Manhattan restaurant.
NPR

Trump Rolls Into Washington For Biker Rally

The presumptive Republican nominee for president addressed Rolling Thunder, the annual gathering of motorcyclists, on Sunday. The group seeks to raise awareness of veterans' issues.
NPR

After Breast Cancer Diagnosis, She Channeled Her Ups And Downs Into Texts

NPR's Scott Simon talks with Natalie Sun about her project, textingwithcancer.com. The website won a Webby award, and documents her pessimism and optimism while undergoing chemotherapy.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.