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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    “Lies, damn lies and state funding”

    Tying state funds to graduation rates a dangerous idea

    “”Performance”” and “”accountability”” have long been buzzwords in the education world. The contentious No Child Left Behind Act attempted to bring accountability to education by evaluating student performance with standardized examinations and other purported measures of excellence. Now, a proposal being cooked up in the Legislature could apply the same concept to higher education – by tying public university funding to statistics like graduation rates.

    According to an article published Saturday in the Arizona Daily Star, Republican Arizona Rep. Jennifer Burns, who heads up the State Legislature’s House Committee on Higher Education, is drafting a proposal to tie funding of Arizona’s public universities to graduation rates. If Arizona’s public universities don’t pump out enough certified graduates as a percentage of their total enrolled population, the precious money provided by the state could conceivably be held back as punishment. Forcing funding to correlate with excellence is a noble goal. But this proposal is a dumb idea.

    Currently, Arizona’s public universities are funded on a per-student basis. For every 22 students enrolled, each school receives a set amount of funding from the state. More students, more money – which is why Arizona State University’s massive enrollment consistently receives a bigger chunk of the state budget. Under Burns’ proposed policy, a quarter of that funding could potentially be tied to graduation rates.

    Graduation rates are often a shocking statistic for public universities – and the UA is no exception. Our dismal six-year graduation rate of 59 percent is an utter embarrassment for the university. But although the number of students earning diplomas ought to be higher, graduation rates are not effective indicators of excellence – and linking crucial funding for higher education to these misleading statistics will only encourage more educational mediocrity in Arizona.

    A study published by the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2004 found that about two-thirds of any university’s graduation rate is based upon differences in the characteristics of students that enter the university. Absolute graduation rates tend not to correlate with excellence, since, for example, there’s a big difference between the students recruited by small liberal arts colleges and those shoveled by the bushel into public universities.

    In fact, the average graduation rate at all four-year institutions in the U.S. is 55.4 percent, according to the Chronicle’s 2007 Almanac of Higher Education, a figure that puts our own shameful stat into perspective. It’s common sense that a state like Arizona, with large public land-grant universities and a secondary education system mired in mediocrity isn’t setting up students for success – so our graduation rates tend to be low.

    A far better indicator of excellence is the difference between actual graduation rates and expected graduation rates, taking into consideration the quality of students entering a university. That’s more difficult to measure – but it’s also a much better assessment of whether universities are helping students succeed.

    Burns claims that tying funding to graduation-rate performance gives universities “”an incentive”” to excel. But her proposal could actually create a perverted set of rules that would easily encourage mediocrity. Graduation rates – and therefore, funding – could be easily boosted by lowering educational standards and diluting the value of a diploma, not by seeking to strengthen them.

    We need a good mechanism to measure university performance. Unfortunately, graduation rates just aren’t the stat we’re looking for.

    OPINIONS BOARD: Editorials are determined by the Wildcat Opinions Board and written by one of its members. They are Justyn Dillingham, Allison Hornick, Sarah Keeler and Connor Mendenhall.

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