Wisconsin Budget Misses the Mark on Measures Promoting Equity in Postsecondary Performance Funding

By Anna Cielinski

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recently released 2017-19 budget calls for University of Wisconsin campuses to compete for $42.5 million in new funding based on performance measures. This adds Wisconsin to a growing list of states that are embarking on a postsecondary performance-based funding system.

State funding for public postsecondary institutions has traditionally been based on enrollment, but today more than two-thirds of states use or will soon use some form of outcomes-based funding (OBF) in four-year, two-year, and/or technical colleges. Outcomes-based funding rewards institutions for student outcomes, like student progress or completing degrees. With states’ greater focus on outcomes, CLASP is concerned—and some research has shown—that institutions may respond to these budgetary incentives by increasing selectivity to make achieving outcomes easier. This would make it more difficult for low-income, underprepared, minority, and adult students to access or complete postsecondary education and earn the credentials they need to succeed in today’s economy.

Wisconsin uses an OBF formula in its technical college system and this budget would create a new formula for University of Wisconsin campuses. Walker’s budget identifies six categories that institutions would be accountable for, which are further divided into 18 measures, one of which is the “low-income student graduation rate.”

CLASP is glad Wisconsin tried to include a measure that would not give negative incentives to enroll low-income students; however it should be a measure of the number of low-income student who graduate, not a rate. A rate can easily be gamed by decreasing the number of low-income students brought in to Universities, which is counter to the purpose of including such a measure. Some experts in Wisconsin are calling attention to this and other flaws in the plan, including that so many measures dilute the effect, rendering them not as meaningful as they could be. Future collaboration with the Board of Regents may lead to better and fewer measures.

Be on the lookout this month for a new CLASP paper, building on our previous work, about the importance of measures that promote equity in outcomes-based funding. Well-thought-out measures pay dividends both to the students who need education to succeed and to our nation’s economy that benefits from a stronger, better-prepared workforce.