The "Money Follows the Student" Plan

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has proposed a plan to allot 2/3 of the state's budget for higher education to students rather than institutions, according to today's Daily (more here). The plan "would force the institutions to be more market-driven and accountable to the state and students."

Under Pawlenty’s plan, students’ decisions on where to attend college would drive reform and change the higher education marketplace, the governor said.

It would create a more dynamic marketplace in which institutions can respond to student needs better, he said. If the institutions have to compete more to attract students as a way to get funding, they’ll have to focus more on quality and keeping costs down, he said.

Institutions need to be more “customer-focused and customer-friendly,” Pawlenty said.

Yikes. My inner extreme cynic wonders if we'd have a situation in which the party schools would get more money and course easiness and teacher hotness would be taken more seriously as criteria. I'm not trying to advance that argument, don't get me wrong, but I do wonder. What do the rest of you think? If P.Z. Myers has blogged about the proposed plan, I'd appreciate a link. I haven't been able to locate a search box on his blog.


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academic freedom

My inner and outer cynics agree that such an initiative is probably designed to, actually could, and probably would constitute an end-run around measures (like tenure) to protect academic freedom among college faculty. It's very scary, sick, and (unfortunately) ingenious.

When I was an undergrad at In

When I was an undergrad at Indiana University they implemented something like this within the university itself -- basically funding went to departments based on how many students enrolled where. I have no idea whether this is a common phenomenon, but in our case it ended up gutting arts and sciences over time, because everybody went to the big shiny business school or what have you. This situation seems like it will have a similar effect, in that trade schools that yield more profitable degrees will get more money. Essentially it opens up academic funding allocations to external economic concerns.

Yikes is right

"Customer-focused"? "Dynamic marketplace"? Maybe "Yuck" would be a more appropriate interjection.

Everything old is new again

Lecturers in medieval universities were paid by the number of students they attracted, basically by the lecture. These were institutions focused more on learning than building a transcript. You had no need for administrators and no capital investment in laboratories. But they did study Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric.

Why do we in the Humanities assume we'd have no audience unless it was conscripted by degree requirements?

The real threat here is not so much to Academic Freedom as it would be to the preference of most senior scholars in universities: "I teach what I want, not what students need." I'm actually intrigued by ideas that would give the greatest compensation to faculty who provide students the greatest value.

markets internal, external, and infernal

John, I'm concerned that you might have focused on your example to the exclusion of stituations like the one Paul describes. The trivium/quadrivium you mention is long gone, and I'm with Paul and Clancy in worrying that the danger is that students will perform a microeconomic "this is what's good for me" analysis in relation to their perception of macroeconomic supply/demand needs of the highest-paying jobs currently available. Which means that the idea of a public institution, serving the public with public taxpayer dollars not only in pedagogy but also in research, becomes even more of a slave to the economy than it is today; it means that the captains of industry decide what gets taught. I think I'd have to contend, as well, that your example of medieval lecturers is unsuitable, because you're talking about capitalist "value" and "compensation" but using a sole example from a mercantile/feudal economy to support it.

There was a presentation at CCCC a couple years ago where one presenter argued that first-year writing programs ought to keep all the money they 'earn': they are, after all, a cash cow. By the same economics, one might argue that classics departments or women's studies departments or art history departments ought to keep all (and only) the money that they 'earn'. And that, I think, would be a shame.

Different strokes

Well, yeah, there's dozens of reasons I wouldn't want to revive the medieval university model, Mike. But that was pretty much a teacher-student arrangement without all of the institutional machinery we have now. And I think we ought to be thinking about radically different ways of supporting humanities curricula, especially writing programs.

And, yes, I think I heard that same argument made at 4 C's about cash cows--probably from someone at University of Pittsburgh. : ) But that argument would only apply where tuition is a major source of financing. At my college, composition is a drag on the budget, not a cash cow. We are the campus loss leader because our classes are 30 or 25 but you need about 35/36 students in a section to "break even" under the state financing formula.

Now I'm happy to rail against evil corporate interests with anyone else, but that stance wears thin when you look at how most college and university composition programs are subsidized by seriously underpaid faculty. In my view, the current arrangement is indefensible on economic grounds. And the current situation has been created largely by members of our profession.

Paul's point is well taken, but the idea of administrators allocating budget purely on the basis of enrollment data is really different from the idea of students carrying their money with them. In the latter case, at least students could make some statements of value by their choices. Paul's case means the value judgements come from managers.

Of course, we should resist becoming educational WalMart's (we're too close to that model already), but I'd like to think about what writing programs would look like where we build our case around demonstrated student learning and performance--and then demand full pay for a full week's work. Is there anyone in composition proposing that kind of approach?

Agreed, but. . .

Of course I'm with you on the faculty exploitation issue, John, and good point about how institutions of higher education make their money. But I disagree with Pawlenty's application of the statement that "markets work" to higher ed; Derek Bok makes some seriously compelling arguments why markets don't work for higher ed. And Clancy, I share your primary worry: since education is an 'experience good,' one for which you can't judge the quality until after you've 'consumed' it, students won't necessarily go to the best schools, but to the schools that advertise themselves most effectively -- which strikes me as a good way to get schools to take money out of pedagogy and research and put it into their marketing divisions.

Rearranging deck chairs

OK, here's my basic point. I'm not trying to support the governor's proposal in its specifics, and certainly not his rationale. But if you offer a radical critique of higher education, and especially of composition programs, you have to be prepared for bold action and serious change.

If a system were devised that money followed students' choices, why assume that only venal marketing people would figure out how to persuade students to enroll in particular programs? Why not assume that the campus rhetoricians could also be successful in persuading students to act in their own best interests and take humanities and writing courses that provided solid learning?

In my state, we need substantial change in the way higher ed is financed. The Republican governor wants to make teachers pay with his proposed changes. I don't want to be trapped in defending a status quo that I regard as indefensible. I'd rather try to propose and promote a better alternative, a radical change in financing, but one that pays teachers fairly.

Students as Consumers

Or "clients." Wrong. Wrong relationship. When did consumerism become part of the education "package" ??? How did we let it happen? How do we want to present ourselves and our institutions to the outside? (So that we aren't marketed by some p.r. firm)
If we want to change things, we have to advocate to the public--who may view us as arrogant, impractical airheads. I suspect that I'm preaching to the choir here, to wander into a medieval motif for a minute. But to suggest that giving the money to the students would make schools more efficient and accountable is a slap in the face to every grad student and adjunct who does a fantastic job for very little pay. Or fulltimers who have to pay their way to conferences and so on. John, the arrogance of senior professors at universities (or anywhere) who teach what they want, period, is a problem for all of us as it perpetuates the stereotype mentioned above and makes the Humanities seem like a money-wasting, time-eating course of study.

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