A new movement in higher education seeks to base school funding on pre-determined performance standards. This idea has some promise, as America’s college education rates lag behind our international peers.

But, if performance-based funding proposals are merely slapped together, rather than being carefully researched to ensure effectiveness, and if they are applied across the board to community colleges, this could discriminate against America’s neediest college students.

Traditionally, community colleges have provided increased opportunities for low-income, low-scoring or marginal students.

Today, community colleges, where close to half of U.S. students are enrolled, help students achieve two vital goals by providing (1) necessary preparation for four-year degree programs and (2) crucial job and skills training to a significant portion of today’s workforce.

Community Colleges Disadvantaged

But to do this, community college instructors and students must first remedy deficits in students’ prior educational experiences, helping them develop the intellectual tools needed to succeed.

This takes time and money, which performance-based funding may severely cut.

In Indiana, for example, the funding formula is a combination of graduation rates and credit levels per student. This means that the more students who graduate and the more credits earned in students’ first year, the more funding schools get from the state.

As a professor, I value student learning over degree completion, though the job market might disagree, and many students entering community colleges for the first time are already behind.

Incoming community college students have significant deficits in both math and English, an NCEE study shows. These deficits exist largely because curriculum at the high school level “is out of alignment with what is needed to succeed in community college.”

This means community college students and their instructors often do not fit easily into standard formulations for funding based on degree-completion.

For example, a community college may graduate fewer students due to various student needs, such as taking a semester off or taking a lighter course load to earn tuition money, or re-taking failed courses.

These students, struggling to complete academic programs in the face of sometimes overwhelming odds, are the ones penalized by performance-based funding that rewards only schools with high graduation rates.

To be sure, community colleges need to improve graduation rates. [Ed. note: A TCF task force outlines some strategies to move toward that goal, including more equitable funding and increased pathways between two- and four-year institutions. However, jumping headfirst into performance-based funding might not be wise.]

Performance-Based Funding Often Fails to Produce Results

Inside Higher Ed reports that “a new round of research on such programs suggests that, to the extent states are trying to increase degree completion, the performance-based programs generally do not work.”

The report’s researchers found that many performance-based funding programs:

A number of factors may be at root in the current “craze” for performance-based funding,including pressure from degree-centered lobby groupsand a misunderstanding about what a degree is supposed to represent (a set of learned skills and knowledge that may take time to achieve).

What’s missing is more sustained and thorough studies of the effects of performance-based funding. The studies cited above are just the start of what needs to be investigated before any states implement performance-based funding.

Administrators should do their due diligence and make sure these formulations are appropriate for their students. If they don’t, they may limit opportunities for millions of students.