Higher Education Chief Wonders If Taxpayers Get Money's Worth
Study Shows Connecticut Provides More Percentage-Wise To Colleges And Universities Than Other States
March 17, 2011
Connecticut pays for a higher percentage of the education-related costs at its public colleges and universities than other states, and Higher Education Commissioner Michael P. Meotti isn't sure we get our money's worth.
Although graduation and retention rates at the state's universities and colleges are rising, Meotti said, these improvements might simply reflect the stronger caliber of students the schools are attracting.
The University of Connecticut, for example, receives 48 percent of its "education in general" budget from the state, according to Braden J. Hosch, director of policy, finance and academic affairs for the state Department of Higher Education. Hosch profiled the performance of state colleges and universities at a higher education board of governors' meeting on Wednesday.
At a sample of comparable institutions in other states, the state's share of the education-related budget averages 24 percent. The education budget doesn't include certain costs, including house and research.
"Connecticut invests at a very high level in higher education," Meotti said. "One would expect a higher return from a higher investment."
He said he doesn't see much evidence that Connecticut gets a commensurate return on its investment.
Meotti said analyzing the performance of the state's universities and colleges is difficult because they don't share pertinent information. The state's system of funding universities and colleges with block grants —lump sums of money to each — provides flexibility for the schools, but not enough transparency.
It's hard to know how well the schools use the money, Meotti said. "Given the amount of resources you have, are you using them to maximize the number of courses needed by students to graduate?"
"The key question is, are you using the dollars right?" Meotti said. "I don't think we are in a position to answer that question. … We ought to be able to answer that question."
Meotti's comments come on the eve of a key legislative vote. On Thursday, the legislature's higher education committee is expected to vote on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposed sweeping reorganization of higher education. Malloy's proposal calls for a consolidation of the management of the state university and community college systems. His budget proposal includes a 10 percent cut in block grants for the state colleges and universities.
Hosch presented figures showing that the percentage difference in the state's share of spending is smaller when peer schools in other states are compared to the Connecticut State University and Connecticut Community College schools. Connecticut provides 41.4 percent of the education budget for the state university system; at a sampling of comparable schools in other states, the states' share averaged 35.6 percent.
For community colleges, Connecticut funds 54 percent, compared to 51 percent for peer schools in the other states.
Hosch also presented good news about rising graduation and retention rates, while noting, as did Meotti, that this doesn't necessarily mean the institutions are getting better at what they do.
At UConn's Storrs campus, for example, the median SAT score for the class entering in 2001 was 1135; 59 percent of those students had been in the top quarter of their high school class. The six-year graduation rate for that class was 74 percent.
Three years later, the median SAT score was 1180 and 79 percent of the students had been in the top quarter of their class. The six-year graduation rate for that class was 81 percent.
The graduation rates and SAT scores similarly improved in the state university system.
"The research says that the No. 1 predictor of an institution's graduation rate are the incoming characteristics of the students," Hosch said after the meeting.
This makes graduation rates a thorny figure to use to measure an institution's success and accountability.
"I don't want to be overly critical," Hosch said. "The idea that they have adjusted their admission mix" to include better qualified students while they have "maintained diversity" is a good thing. But it's "taking more credit than is their due to say, 'We raised the graduation rate.' "
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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