Reflect Quality In State Funding

Public colleges and universities with high-quality programs as well as good enrollment – and yes, we are thinking of West Liberty University – ought to be rewarded when it comes time to dole out state funding. But just who defines “high-quality?” That question needs to be answered satisfactorily before changes in West Virginia’s higher education funding mechanism are made.

West Virginia legislators are studying formulas used by other states to allocate scarce public dollars to colleges and universities. Much is at stake: The 12 public institutions of higher learning in our state share $322 million a year in taxpayers’ money.

Currently, the cash is doled out primarily on the basis of enrollment. In some ways, that is not a bad system. It is a market-based approach through which colleges and universities with programs most appealing to prospective students – theoretically because of quality – get bigger shares of the pie.

Factors other than quality can affect enrollment, however. In some states, formulas using graduation and student retention rates, along with other factors, to judge quality have been established to aid in funding decisions.

At first glance, that sounds appealing. Again, however, the devil could be in the details. For example, how does a funding formula recognize initiative such as that demonstrated by WLU in expanding its health care offerings? And would rigid criteria involving graduation rates lead to cheating on statistics, as has occurred in some states’ K-12 schools?

Finally, enrollment cannot be dumped entirely as a guide for allocating state funds – unless, of course, an institution attracts new students by busloads but has dismal retention and graduation rates.

All that said, a funding formula based at least in part on the quality of colleges and universities sounds good. Legislators should continue considering the idea, with the goal of using it to reward the state’s better institutions of higher learning.