Florida House debates changing how university performance cash awarded

The House is taking another look at performance standards for state universities, after supporters of some schools, including Florida A&M University, say they are being shortchanged in a system that denies extra funding to the “bottom three” universities.

Currently, universities compete annually for a pot of state performance money that is awarded after the schools are ranked by the system’s Board of Governors on 10 measurements, including a six-year graduation rate, salaries of recent graduates, retention of students and student costs.

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The funds totaled $245 million this academic year. And the money can provide a significant boost to schools that qualify. The University of Florida, which topped the rankings, earned $55 million.

The top schools split the money based on a formula, but the bottom three do not receive any state performance funds. Florida Polytechnic University, the state’s newest school, does not yet participate.

Finishing in the bottom three meant FAMU, which earned $11.5 million in 2016-2017, and Florida Gulf Coast University, which earned $8 million, as well as the University of North Florida, did not receive any state performance funds this year.

On the other hand, several schools that previously had finished in the bottom three improved their academic performance and moved up in the rankings. The University of West Florida made one of the most-significant moves, earning $21 million in performance funding. New College of Florida, the smallest institution in the system, also qualified for the first time, earning $2.5 million.

But Rep. Ramon Alexander, a Tallahassee Democrat and former FAMU student body president, said the ranking system is unfair, pitting vastly different institutions, like the University of Florida, a major research university, against New College, a small liberal arts school.

“The state university system and how we determine and how we pick winners and losers is a very flawed system,” Alexander said, as the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee approved a major higher-education bill (HB 423) last week.

Alexander said there has been $719 million in state performance funding available over the past four years, but some schools have only received a small share of those funds: FAMU, $17 million; Florida Gulf Coast, $16 million; the University of North Florida, $11 million; and New College, $2.5 million.

“We’re picking winners and losers and it’s creating a larger and larger and larger gap,” Alexander said.

He also said it was unfair to withhold money from the bottom three if they were improving academically yet still trailed the top schools in the performance-funding formula.

“What we’re saying is we want you to go out there and improve your retention rates, your progression rates, your job placement rates, but then if you’re in the bottom three, regardless if you have improved, we’re going to penalize you,” Alexander said.

Alexander’s argument has found support in the House, with leaders backing a provision in the higher-education bill that calls for the Board of Governors to create a performance-funding system based on individual school performance, rather than comparing the schools across the system.

“The bill eliminates unnecessary competition between universities for the state investment in performance funding because each university will compete against its own past performance,” a bill analysis says. “All universities will have the opportunity to meet eligibility requirements for performance funding if they meet their own individual improvement benchmarks.”

However, the schools will have to show “continuous improvement” in their individual standards to qualify for the state funding and could risk losing a portion of their “base” funding if they regress.

The House bill also calls for the Board of Governors to look at making all state funding for the 12 universities “performance based,” rather than just for a portion of the funds. The bill calls for the plan to be submitted to the Legislature by Jan. 1.

A major Senate higher-education bill (SB 4) would retain the current performance-funding system.

Senate Higher Education Appropriations Chairman Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who is sponsoring the Senate bill, said he would not object to studying changes but would prefer to stick with the current system.

“The way we’ve laid it out and the way the formula has existed since the beginning, being tied to base funding, is at this point in week five (of the session) where I would like to see us continue to be,” he said last week.

Galvano also said schools have moved up and down on the performance-funding list.

“It is a bonus program, so to speak,” he said. “It is competitive and so it’s made to motivate and have that competitive nature.”

Galvano also said the Senate would look to be “very fair” in its support for all universities across the entire budget, saying lawmakers would “look at where institutions are being impacted and find ways to help them along.”

The Senate is also supporting a $100 million increase in university performance funding in the 2018-19 academic year. The House budget maintains the current $245 million level.

The House higher-education bill, with the performance-funding changes, next heads to the Education Committee. The Senate has passed its bill, which is awaiting action in the House.

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