LITTLE ROCK - Members of a legislative panel met the newly hired director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education on Tuesday and plied her with questions and comments about plans to revamp the funding formula for state colleges and universities.
On July 29 the Higher Education Coordinating Board approved the basic framework for a proposed new formula that would be based not on enrollment but on accomplishment of desired outcomes, such as increased rates of degree completion and post-graduation job placement. The framework will be considered by the Legislature in the session that begins January, and if it receives approval the details will be fleshed out later.
ADHE Director Maria Markham appeared before the Higher Education Subcommittee of the state Legislative Council on Tuesday, her second day on the job. She replaced Bret Powell, who resigned to become vice president for finance and administration at Henderson State University.
State Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, asked Markham if some institutions would suffer under the funding formula by virtue of where their students come from.
“If they come from K through 12 public schools in Arkansas in my district that are poor-performing schools, what happens to that institution?” she asked.
Markham said the work group of higher education officials that developed the framework was concerned that access and availability to higher education be protected.
“It’s been part of the metric from the beginning. We haven’t decided what the appropriate weight would be to that, but students who are underserved actually are funded at a higher weighting than students who come in academically prepared or from backgrounds that are typically less expensive to fund,” she said.
Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, said he hoped the changes would include doing a better job of tracking former students’ earning power. He noted that a certificate from a two-year school can make a significant difference in a person’s ability to earn money.
“I tend to think now earning power is the most important thing, that we empower people to make a good living,” he said.
Markham told Ingram, “That is a charge of our department to coordinate with other groups to improve the data quality and to ensure that we are being more accurate in the way we track those and reward the institutions that really do make a difference.”
She also said the formula will place greater emphasis on degrees in some fields than others.
Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, asked whether an institution would be penalized if a student chooses to take more hours than he or she needs to graduate.
‘They will be disincentivized for that,” Markham said. “Once that student has met their graduation goal, then at that point that’s counted as a success for the institution. Anything above and beyond that, it would be a disincentive for the institution to serve that student.”
Elliott, a former schoolteacher, also said she did not agree with Ingram that the most important thing about a college education is earning power.
“We’re not going to have any teachers if it gets to be about what they make as opposed to the real importance of the job,” she said.