First Person

Commentary: Options for higher ed funding

Robert Reichardt, the former director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at CU-Denver’s School of Public Affairs, is president of R-Squared Research, LLC, a local research firm.

The Lobato case is a win for Colorado K-12 education. It adds weight to the call for increased funding to K-12. But it is probably a loss for higher education in Colorado. If we need to add money to K-12 education then it must come from somewhere.

Over the past decade, higher education has been the place to cut when money is needed for K-12, healthcare, human services and corrections. And in some ways this makes sense: higher education has access to another source of funding (tuition) which makes it easier to maintain operations. However, the trend is clear (with or without Lobato): unless we find a new sustainable source of money for higher education, state support for higher education will drop to near zero within the decade.

What we need

We need a new, increased source of funding dedicated to higher education. We need a funding stream $750 million to $1 billion per year to replace the current, but dwindling, $650 million that comes from the state’s general fund. This new source of funding will not occur without legislative and voter approval. Key to voter approval is a conversation about options for funding higher education, and I hope this blog adds to that conversation.

In October 2011 Tim Foster, president of Colorado Mesa University (CMU, formerly Mesa State College) put forward his “A Public Good” plan to create a funding stream for CMU. This basic plan is for the state to borrow money to create an endowment for CMU and a (hopefully) secure stream of funding from investing this endowment in the bond and securities market. This plan essentially locks the state into a 20-year obligation to pay off the bonds. When the bonds are paid off, the state ends its financial obligations to CMU.

If applied to the entire state, the yearly cost of paying off the bonds is close to the current level of state funding for higher education. Challenges with this plan include it is risky to higher education institutions (relying on the market for funds) and reduced taxpayer control over the institutions as they “own” their endowments.

Connecting money to control

I suggest another idea that builds off of the recommendation of the Higher Education Strategic Plan published in 2010 as well as the performance contracts and College Opportunity Fund (COF) that are currently in place. Key to these plans is connecting money with a sense of public control over how the money is used: people want to know what they get for their money. I propose a combination of governance (i.e. elected boards) control over institutions and dedicating funding to particular activities in exchange for higher property and severance taxes.

On the activity side, we should explicitly link the majority of new funding (70% or so) to student scholarships so that people know where the money is going. The scholarships would build on the COF but have more flexibility in terms of requirements for students to get the money (maybe higher stipends for higher ACT scores) and matching scholarships to institutional goals (maybe higher stipends for engineering students). The remaining funding should be split between contracts for graduate services (medical and veterinary schools, research, and service) and funding for capital infrastructure.

A very back-of-the-envelop calculation suggests an overall state increase in property taxes by two to three mills should raise between $170 million and $250 million for two and four year regional institutions (i.e. community colleges and regional institutions such as Fort Lewis, Mesa, Adams, Western and CSU Pueblo). The property taxes should be linked to a governance change through locally elected boards each region. This board would have authority over the how the funds are used, determining:

  • How people qualify for scholarships and their amounts;
  • What are the contracted services (few are expected); and
  • The nature of the infrastructure investments.

And each board should have the authority to ask to raise property taxes in its region.

The statewide institutions (CSU, CU, Metro, Mines and UNC) should also have a dedicated pot of funding that is a combination of property taxes and severance taxes. Another two to three mills of property tax should go to these statewide scholarships. An increase of three percentage points on the severance tax could raise another $200 million for contracted services. Here the amounts and contracts would be negotiated between the state (Colorado Commission on Higher Education) and each university’s governing board.

Taken together, these are big changes that will face a lot of political headwinds. The goal is to increase higher education funding while giving voters more control over the use of those funds. It upsets the current governance structure of higher education institutions, adds a new statewide property tax (which would increase statewide property revenue by about 7 percent) and significantly increases severance taxes. But the size of the fiscal problem is huge and it will require big solutions.

A wide-ranging conversation about solving the higher education funding problem is needed if we hope to actually reach a solution. Hopefully, the conversation will continue.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.