AUGUSTA — The universities in Augusta and Farmington will reap major benefits under a new funding plan for the state’s university system if they stay on track producing graduates.

A gradually increasing portion of the money the state gives to the University of Maine System’s seven universities will be based on performance of both students and the universities themselves.

Since the formation of the university system in 1968, the flagship campus in Orono has received about 50 percent of the annual state appropriation, the University of Southern Maine in Portland has received 25 percent and the other five institutions have split the remaining 25 percent.

The portion to be divvied up with the new distribution process will initially be applied to 5 percent of the state appropriation for the 2013-14 year — $7.8 million out of $155 million earmarked for the university system in Gov. Paul LePage’s budget — and increase to 30 percent of that total by 2018-19. That’s if the university system’s trustees do not change the model they have approved.

The universities will split that pot of money based on a formula designed to encourage degree completion, research and development and efficiency.

“Awarding funds in a way that is intentional seems like a better plan than just doing it the way we’ve always done it,” said Rebecca Wyke, the system’s vice chancellor for finance and a member of the team that created the outcome-based model.

Maine is joining a national trend of states awarding higher education funding based on the performance of colleges and universities. 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 10 states use some form of performance-based funding, five other than Maine are making the transition to such a system and 18 have formally explored options.

Some of the states that have used performance-based funding later scrapped it, and knowledge about the effectiveness of such systems is limited, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

In the past few years, however, some states have committed to distributing more of their higher education funding based on performance, going as high as 100 percent in Tennessee.

After working with a consultant from the nonprofit National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, Wyke said, the University of Maine System hopes to avoid some of the pitfalls experienced by other states, such as making the incentives too complicated or not reallocating enough money to encourage changes.

“We know it’s not perfect,” Wyke said. “That’s why it’s important to revisit it on an annual basis.”

Maine’s outcomes-based model starts with four goals: increase the number of adults with degrees or certificates, meet the workforce needs of employers, contribute to economic development through research and improve the productivity of the universities, measured in degrees per $100,000.

The formula is weighted toward advanced degrees and degrees awarded to transfer students or to adults older than 30. There are also extra points for degrees in health care; science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as STEM; and other statewide and regional needs, which have not been determined.

Money matters

Preliminary figures for the 2013-14 year show that the universities in Orono and Machias will get less money with the new formula, while those in Augusta, Farmington, Fort Kent, Portland and Presque Isle will benefit.

The University of Maine at Augusta should receive about $910,000, or 11.7 percent of the $7.8 million in the pot, and the University of Maine at Farmington would get about $570,000, or 7.3 percent. By comparison, UMA is receiving 8.6 percent of state appropriations this year, and UMF is getting 6.3 percent.

UMA President Allyson Handley said she’s pleased the outcomes-based model rewards her university’s strengths, such as educating older students, but it’s likely to create anxiety in some quarters.

“We’re all putting 5 percent of our state appropriation into this common pool, and there are no guarantees about who will get what portion of that 5 percent,” she said.

UMF President Kate Foster, who also helped shape the outcomes-based model, said her university does well because it has the highest graduation rate in the university system.

UMF rates lower on productivity, however, because its small classes and residential setting are expensive. The university also offers relatively few degrees in health or STEM fields.

Foster said some of the state and regional priorities still to be determined may help UMF. Because Maine has a shortage of special education teachers, for example, it’s possible that extra points could be assigned to degrees in special education, and UMF produces a lot of graduates in that field.

That would be a small adjustment, and Foster said she and other UMF leaders will have to decide whether it’s worth making bigger changes to the university’s identity — as a public liberal arts college preparing many of Maine’s teachers — to chase dollars.

“You don’t have to change who you are,” Foster said. “It might be a cost of doing business. I might look at the model and say, ‘Well, we’ll never do adult ed like Augusta.’ Maybe that’s where we ultimately would just sacrifice points.”

University missions

Handley also said she doesn’t want the outcomes-based model to change UMA’s mission of access. UMA admits nearly everyone, including students who have not been in a classroom in several years or were never adequately prepared for college.

Last fall, 37.2 percent of UMA students were enrolled in remedial courses, which do not count toward a degree. Although those students take longer to graduate, Handley said UMA will not turn them away.

“We aren’t going to be, as an institution, changing our entrance requirements in order to try to game the system,” Handley said. “That wouldn’t be appropriate for us.”

Ann Blanke, president of UMA’s Faculty Senate and a math professor at the Bangor campus, said she’s pleased outcomes-based funding will reward attention to STEM, health care and adult learners.

Blanke teaches several remedial courses, and she said she’ll watch to make sure that UMA continues to support older students, or those who need additional help, rather than limiting their access.

Blanke also cautioned against reallocating too much money according to the outcomes-based model, for fear that the focus on STEM and health care will crowd out a well-rounded education that includes the humanities.

“Even though I am in math and I’ve taught economics,” Blanke said, “I still have a real soft spot that acknowledges that universities are there for English and arts and music and the other things that round a person to make them an educated person and a good citizen.”

Blanke’s concerns echo those voiced by faculty and student representatives from the University of Maine. They said the outcomes-based model could push universities to degrade the quality of education and avoid developing more-expensive degree programs, among other unintended consequences.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
smcmillan@mainetoday.com