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Tech colleges model pathways for creating performance metrics

Three years ago the Wisconsin Technical College System adopted a system of performance-based metrics. 

Image By: Katie Scheidt

The Wisconsin Technical College System could provide a model for the UW System on how to navigate implementing performance-based metrics.

Part of Gov. Scott Walker’s recent budget proposal would compare each UW System school’s performance against a set of criteria to determine their share of state funding. Specific performance metrics have yet to be defined but have already drawn skepticism from critics

UW-Madison professor Nick Hillman has done research in state higher education performance funding and its outcomes and policy implications.

Hillman told The Daily Cardinal that Walker’s current proposal includes metrics that are inconsistent with industry standards for successful performance metrics. He suggested a collaborative model that did not follow a one-size-fits-all approach would be more effective in reaching desired outcomes.

Currently, the budget would look at percentages and statistics that show a school's efforts to support state priorities of affordability and attainability, work readiness, student success in the state workforce, efficiency, service as well as additional criteria. The Board of Regents would then use a weighted formula to rank schools and determine each school's share of state dollars.

The weighted formula, adjusted for each school, determines the ranking that schools receive, which determines how much state aid they can collect.

Performance-based metrics at technical colleges

However, performance-based metrics are not a new idea in Wisconsin or the nation. Three years ago, the Wisconsin Technical College System implemented a system of performance-based metrics in all of their 16 districts.

State legislators and technical colleges administrators collaborated to determine a list of nine metrics the districts would use to assess performance. The governor had originally proposed six standards, and the group added three more before implementation.

Each college then chose seven metrics for their school to measure themselves against.

“That gave a little bit of flexibility in that process and that also gave campuses a little bit of a buy-in, a little bit of mission differentiation going,” Hillman said.

Mission Differentiation

Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, was involved in the technical colleges’ transition to performance-based funding as chair of the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical colleges committee and the chair of the Joint Committee on Finance.

“I’ve heard from other states and read it’s important, as you go to performance based funding, not to take away the ability for different campuses or different districts to have unique missions,” Harsdorf said.

Hillman said that applying the same categories of criteria to all schools is unlikely to yield the desired results. He suggested mission differentiation, with different metrics tailored to each university's goals, would allow each campus to measure themselves against standards that are responsive to their priorities.

Policy leaders wanted to allow for this differentiation among technical college districts, according to Harsdorf. Harsdorf added that UW System campuses likely have even greater variation.

“Within the university, you have two-year campuses, you’ve got doctoral campuses, you’ve got the comprehensives and even if you take a look at Parkside, they gear more toward a disadvantaged population,” Harsdorf said.

Bottom-up approach leads to sustainable model

Conversely, Hillman cited other schools that have taken a bottom-up approach to crafting their metric policies instead of having the legislature tell schools what to implement.

He said allowing schools to be part of a deliberative process to decide which metrics are best, like the technical colleges, can make help models survive changing administrations, as well as shifting economic and political trends.

“These policies come and go. They are like many management fads and they have very short shelf lives,” Hillman said. “If Wisconsin really wants to be committed to this a little nuance along the way would be to include campuses in some of the planning so if they're gonna do it they do it really in a sustainable way.”

Harsdorf said that performance funding metrics can help identify issues institutions weren’t aware of and achieve successful outcomes. For taxpayers and students, it can allow for greater transparency.

Harsdorf and other legislators working on the budget will hear public testimonies and proposal from different campuses concerning performance funding. Following, legislators will modify the budget before it reaches Walker’s desk sometime in June.

“Metrics will drive behavior so we’re going to be working to see how we can improve and make sure [the budget] we do pass is going to be successful,” Harsdorf said.  

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