Study: Community college performance funding falls short in student retention and degree completion

David Tandberg, assistant professor of higher education at Florida State.

Performance funding as an incentive has had little effect on raising student retention and degree completion rates in community colleges, according to a new study co-authored by Florida State University Assistant Professor of Higher Education David Tandberg.

The study, which was published Jan. 14 in the American Educational Research Association’s peer-reviewed journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, found retention and degree completion at the state of Washington’s community and technical colleges were not distinguishable from the performance of colleges in states without similar accountability policies. Several states across the nation have adopted similar programs in recent years.

“We think the study identifies that while these programs may not always accomplish their stated goals, they do impact institutional behavior, just not always in the way the designers of the program had desired or anticipated,” Tandberg said.

While the study focuses on the state of Washington’s community college program, performance funding support came into the spotlight nationally as President Barack Obama recently unveiled the “America’s College Promise” proposal, which will make two years of community college free for responsible students.

The federal government would fund three-quarters of tuition, and states would be responsible for the remaining quarter. The plan calls for states to “allocate a significant portion of funding based on performance, not enrollment alone.”

“Essentially President Obama is requiring states, if they don’t already have one, to adopt a performance-funding program to participate,” Tandberg said.

Tandberg suggests state policy makers recognize there are multiple factors to consider when trying to increase retention and completion rates, and a more comprehensive policy approach should be considered, which may also require additional resources.

“Community colleges are generally underfunded and a more comprehensive approach that addresses the resource issue and supports them in multiple ways would probably be a wiser policy,” Tandberg said. “If they want to combine all of that with performance funding, I think that’s fine, but performance funding by itself is unlikely to have the impacts they desire.”

Tandberg teamed up with Nicholas W. Hillman of University of Wisconsin–Madison and Alisa Hicklin Fryar of the University of Oklahoma for the study, which examined Washington State’s Student Achievement Initiative — widely recognized as a model for performance accounting systems in the United States.

Researchers by examined data for 2002 through 2012 from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System using difference-in-differences analysis.