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Colorado colleges make their promises

Colorado State University-Fort Collins intends to increase the number of undergraduate degrees issued by 1 percent a year.

For its part, Metropolitan State University promises to do the same thing – plus increase the number of credentials earned by traditionally underserved students by 2 percent a year.

Photo from “Colorado Completes,” the new higher education master plan.

Photo from “Colorado Completes,” the new higher education master plan.

Fort Lewis College, along with the other two, proposes to increase the graduation rate of transfer students.

Those three institutions and every other state college are finalizing the performance contracts required by a 2010 law and intended the meet the goals of the master plan adopted formally by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education Thursday.

The commission actually agreed on the plan months ago but “affirmed” the master plan one last time.

“Considering how long we’ve been working on this, it’s nice to take a final vote,” said Commissioner Hereford Percy.

“It seems like ages ago when we started on this,” said Commissioner Happy Haynes, reflecting on the 18-month process.

The master plan work “will help ensure that Colorado has an educated workforce to meet the needs of our economy. Our system of higher education and our ability to create human capital is key to the future of the state,” said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who also serves as executive director of the Department of Higher Education.

The companion piece to the master plan is the set of performance contracts for each state system or institution. Those documents are to be wrapped up by Dec. 31.

In addition to aligning college goals with the master plan, the contracts also eventually may form the basis for extra, performance-based funding of state colleges and universities. The same law that required the master plan also called for performance funding, but not until certain higher education funding levels are met.

The master plan, titled “Colorado Completes,” has four main goals:

  • Increase by 1,000 a year the number of degrees and credentials awarded;
  • Improve student success through improved remedial education, better student support services and reduction in the average time it takes students to finish;
  • Reduce higher education attainment gaps among ethnic and income groups; and
  • Restoration of “fiscal balance” by increasing direct state support of higher education.

Colorado institutions now issue about 50,000 degrees and certificates a year. The state wants to increase that by 1,000 to meet the expectation that by 2025 two-thirds of all jobs in Colorado will require some kind of post-secondary credential, either a degree or a professional or vocational certificate.

Inside the contracts

While final tweaking remains to be done on some of the five-year contracts, the DHE this week released contract worksheets for some institutions to illustrate how colleges are crafting their plans.

The commission likely will meet again later this month to formally approve the contracts, which will go into effect immediately upon signature and will supersede a different, less-focused set of contracts that were signed in 2005. (Three private institutions that receive state per-student stipends, Colorado Christian University, Regis University and the University of Denver, also will have contracts, but those won’t be finished until later next year.)

Every college had to propose goals for increasing their completion rates and for reducing attainment gaps.

The final contracts will include worksheets on which colleges select which “indicators” (or goals) they will use to work toward the broad goals of improved credential completion, student retention and progress, closing attainment gaps and financial stewardship.

Colleges have to pick two or more indicators in each of the four categories. The DHE suggested indicators to choose from, and colleges could suggest their own.

The indicators chosen in the worksheets have to add up to 100 points. Each of the first three broad goals have to account for at least 20 points, while the financial stewardship goal has to account for at least 15 points.

Will the master plan work?

Aside from the 1,000-degrees-a-year goal, and some annual percentage goals included in institutional contract indicators, both the master plan and the contracts are short on numerical goals. Many of the indicators merely use the phrase “annually increase.”

Asked about that earlier this week, Garcia said setting non-numerical goals for increases “does create a real challenge for the schools.” He said that “the annual increase is actually a higher bar” than setting a goal for a certain number of degrees by a specific date.

Matt Gianneschi, DHE deputy director, also said that “gradualism” (Garcia called it “continuous quality improvement”) is better than setting a hard goal.

“Shocking the system with an immediate change may not yield the results you want,” Gianneschi said.

Garcia said he’s also confident that colleges won’t try to “game” the master plan system by, for instance, raising admissions requirements in an attempt to ensure that more students graduate.

“We really assume … quality and rigor will remain the standard,” Garcia said.

Garcia and DHE officials have gone to great pains to emphasize that development of the master plan and the contracts was a cooperative effort among the department and the state’s sometime fractious colleges and universities.

“This was a shared effort,” Garcia said.

The process was “intended to respect the different roles and missions” of various institutions.

Performance funding

The pay-for-performance aspect of Colorado’s master plan law has gained lots of attention, and the issue is on the radar nationwide as policymakers wrestle with declining state support of higher education and rising tuition costs for students.

But performance funding remains an aspiration for now in Colorado, given that the law says it won’t kick in until direct state support of higher education returns to $706 million a year. It’s currently about $513 million, and Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to increase that to about $543 million in 2013-14.

Once $706 million has been reached, then a quarter of the amount over $650 million is available for performance funding, which will be based on how colleges perform on their contracts.

So, if higher education funding were $706 million in some future budget year, 25 percent of $56 million, or $14 million, would be available to reward colleges for performance.

The department and the commission will spend next year coming up with a system for distributing the additional funding if and when it becomes available.