Money by degrees


The presidents of Ohio’s public universities and community colleges, at the prodding of Gov. John Kasich, are proposing big changes in the formula that state government uses to distribute tax aid to higher education. The presidents’ plan would reward not merely enrolling students, but rather ensuring that they graduate on time and stay in the state after they earn their degrees.

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That change in emphasis is proper, with a few caveats. The recommendations offered by the Ohio Higher Education Funding Commission are largely conceptual and leave a lot of terms — and dollar amounts — undefined.

They also suggest a number of questions: What will prevent an institution from lowering its academic standards to produce more graduates, and thus collect more money? How will the formula end up allocating state aid between the college or university where a student starts and the school from which she or he ultimately graduates?

How will the revised formula resolve inequities in the current formula that inefficiently benefit some schools and campuses and disadvantage others? How will it take into account the schools’ diverse academic missions? How will universities and colleges reform their student support services as they make the transition to the new formula?

Once such questions are answered, the presidents’ proposals appear sound. They would tie half of a four-year university’s formula grant to its success at graduating students; the current figure is 18 percent. The presidents also note that keeping college affordable for students and families remains a basic, and urgent, goal.

The plan would properly make it easier for students to transfer credits from community colleges to universities. It would provide financial incentives to schools to enroll the best students from outside Ohio and keep them in the state once they graduate, and also to recruit older students and those with nontraditional and at-risk backgrounds.

A formula that is tied less to enrollment numbers could encourage universities to become more selective in their recruitment and admissions policies. It also could enable universities to cede more of the task of remedial education to community colleges that are in a better position to handle it.

The presidents’ report is the latest heartening example of enhanced cooperation among Ohio’s institutions of public higher education. This year, the presidents also have collaborated on proposals to rationalize capital spending in the state college and university system, and to offer recommendations for ensuring that students complete their degrees.

During the presentation of the new funding plan, the most important statement came from Mr. Kasich. He told the presidents that “we’re not going to cut you” in the two-year budget he is scheduled to propose in February, and said he even hopes to increase aid.

Sharp reductions in government support of public higher education have created fiscal hardships for many of these institutions. If the governor wants Ohio’s colleges and universities to continue to embrace his funding principles, he is more likely to gain such assent if the state maintains its responsibility to fund the schools adequately.