When higher education professionals talk of states that put support for higher education high on the list of priorities, only lately has Ohio been able to include itself among the ranks of new movers and shakers.
The Buckeye State, which boasts one of the nation's largest systems of public higher education, is embarking upon a new chapter in higher education, one that is drawing mixed reviews as state leaders contend dramatic changes are needed to sustain the state as a magnet to employers and expand taxpayer support for public higher education. This comes at a time when the state's economy is hard pressed, unemployment is high and its historic manufacturing-based jobs economy has all but disappeared. "When you have a system this big, you focus on quality and affordability, but also how you become accountable," says Eric Fingerhut, the Cleveland lawyer, former state and federal lawmaker who serves as chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, the state's policymaking body for higher education. "You turn from a group of institutions that compete with each other to a system that is collaborative and shares goals," says Fingerhut of the state's new pursuits.
Today, Ohio is in the second year of a 10-year plan that embraces a variety of so-called reforms, including performance-based funding, for its 14 major colleges and universities, 23 community colleges and numerous adult learning centers.
Among the changes, Ohio's public colleges are moving to a standard calendar; four schools, including Ohio State, will join others in shifting to a semester from a quarter system. The state is implementing a seamless universal transfer system for students, consolidating the human resources operations of various schools into one and rewarding faculty who develop new approaches that sustain educational quality but don't require the purchase of expensive textbooks and study materials.
The University System of Ohio is in the throes of spending more than $130 million to create a single technology infrastructure, a system that would link every part of Ohio's public higher education system into one network, reducing the system of 3,500 IT servers and 75,000 desktop computers and hopefully freeing those funds for more education programs.
The most significant reform is the state's embrace of a new approach to funding its colleges, one that relies more heavily on performance and outcome measures, such as retention and graduation rates, and less on enrollment. Results or performance-based funding has gotten mixed reviews in other states where it has been tried. Still, Ohio officials see it as an essential part of their overall strategy for the future.
"We believe we (higher education institutions) are the long-term answer to economic problems in Ohio," says Fingerhut. "We know the talented people and ideas are coming out of our schools."
A Flawed Formula?
The shopping list of changes being pursued by state leaders has been widely embraced, although some veterans of the academy are expressing concern and caution that Ohio not repeat some of the experiences of others that have given result-based, performance standards a bad name, most notably the weighing of formulas in such a manner that schools with histories of being in the rear of the pack are rewarded less for progress in trying to move ahead when funding continues to be based on past experiences.
"Is the system valuing what we can measure or are we measuring what we value?" asks economist Mike Mogavero, an expert on higher education strategic planning. Mogavero, who has tracked the performance-based funding movement, says he could not comment on the specifics of Ohio's plan. Still, he echoed others in saying state officials need to be careful their program does not measure all schools the same way in determining funding standards.
That message resonates around the state. …