Performance funding is the hot topic for higher education today. In Kentucky, our Council on Postsecondary Education recently announced it favors this idea and wants to start doling out money to the public universities and community and technical colleges based on results.
So far, the CPE has not provided an operational definition of performance, and there is no guarantee the legislature will go along with this scheme. Yet it’s a reasonable assumption that Murray State will soon have to justify its state subsidy by increasing the number of graduates and assuring that most, if not all, of them have jobs soon after they get their degrees. Moreover, incoming students and their parents expect this level of performance.
I’m fortunate to lead successful professional programs within a college where all academic departments stress the development of both intellectual and professional skills as well as career planning. In my unit this year, 78 percent of the graduating seniors already have meaningful career-related work experience in their portfolios. I don’t feel threatened by the CPE proposal.
Although we must accept the realities of public policy, we should not do so without some healthy skepticism. This is not the first time the CPE has attempted to change the funding formula, nor will it be the last. In each instance, funding does not grow. Many times, it gets smaller. I see this as a card game with all the public universities and the community and technical colleges as the players and CPE the dealer. Since the players never change, there’s never any new money on the table. Every other hand, the dealer changes the game. Unless we deal someone else in – say a new university in Pikeville – the situation doesn’t change. And even then, the dealer may require all the other players to chip in to stake the new guy.
I have a more fundamental problem measuring performance in higher education. My undergraduate degree is from a small liberal arts college where I majored in English with a minor in classical languages.
I also studied economics, mathematics and music. At the time, about two generations ago, my college curriculum was fairly typical.
A liberal arts education prepared you for a wide variety of work options because your degree meant two things. You knew how to undertake and complete a complex, multi-year learning experience – something you would do the rest of your life no matter what your occupation. And you knew how to figure things out – again a valuable lifelong skill. Professional skills were what you picked up on the job, or in graduate school.
We used to talk about college as a place to go to improve your mind. In our quest to assess the results of higher education, it’s easy to overlook this important objective, perhaps because it’s not something you can count. Yet we still have the biology major who chooses it because she’s fascinated by life. And the history major who loves the subject because he wants to learn from the triumphs and failures of the past. And the English major who loves to read because she’s curious about how people live and the relationships they have with others. These remain legitimate reasons to pursue a degree at Murray State or anywhere else.
By all means, we should continue to demonstrate the worth of the many quality professional degree programs. But the abilities to learn, to figure things out and to exercise intellectual curiosity are fundamental expectations we have of educated people.
If we fail to include these traits in our performance measures, we are only providing a superficial value assessment of a university degree.
Letter by Robert Lochte Chair, Department of Journalism and Mass Communications