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New policies governing the new way the state will fund its public colleges and universities cleared a hurdle Tuesday, but not before a few tweaks.

Act 148 of 2017 changed the way Arkansas funds higher education institutions from one based largely on enrollment to one based on students' progress through and completion of certificate or degree programs. The change was in response to the state's higher education master plan, which set goals of increasing the percentage of Arkansans who hold technical certificates and higher degrees to 60 percent by 2025. The idea is to produce a larger number of people who could fill future workforce demand.

The new law only laid out three broad goals of effectiveness, affordability and efficiency. That left the state Department of Higher Education to create policies that lay out metrics on which the state's 11 public universities and 22 public community colleges will be scored to determine whether the schools improved from one year to the next and whether the schools would get less, more or the same amount of funding from the state.

The rules for two-year colleges originally did not include high school students who are taking college-level courses for credit in one of the metrics, nor did they include noncredit workforce training.

The department made the changes to include those groups after a public comment period, in which a handful of college leaders voiced concerns about them and other parts of the rules.

It is also planning to add a post-completion success metric and is working with the Arkansas Research Center and the state Department of Workforce Services to compile data on employment placement, graduate school acceptances and wages, Higher Education Department Director Maria Markham said.

The amended policies -- one with metrics for two-year colleges, a second with metrics for four-year universities and a third detailing how the funds will be allocated to the schools -- got initial approval from the Administrative Rules and Regulations subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council. Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, said he wanted the record to reflect that he opposed the policies' passage.

It will go before the full Arkansas Legislative Council on Friday and, if it passes then, will move to the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board later this month for a final vote. The new funding methods will be in place for the coming fiscal year. If the policies are not passed, Markham said, the Higher Education Department will be stripped of its ability to make funding recommendations for the state's colleges and universities.

Tuesday's vote came after the leaders of four colleges -- National Park College in Hot Springs, East Arkansas Community College in Forrest City, North Arkansas College in Harrison and Black River Technical College in Pocahontas -- met earlier in the day with Higher Education Department brass and Gov. Asa Hutchinson and his staff.

"The meeting was part of the continuing cooperation with two-year colleges in moving to a funding model based upon goals of accountability, efficiency, affordability and student achievement," Hutchinson said through his spokesman, J.R. Davis. "Today, we reviewed the changes to assure the formula reflected workforce training courses of community colleges. I am very pleased with the support of the leaders."

National Park President John Hogan, who was unavailable for an interview Tuesday afternoon, said in a statement that he was invited to visit with Hutchinson that morning to help develop a strategy to strengthen the new funding method.

"I continue to fully support the Governor's interest in investing in higher education," Hogan said in the statement. "In the aftermath of today's meeting, I am even more encouraged about Arkansas' future."

The revised policies won the favor of Bill Stovall, the executive director of Arkansas Community Colleges, he told legislators Tuesday.

"I also know enough about the legislative process to know that you have recourse," he said. "This is not the end of it. We are going to see other things from the department."

The Higher Education Department has agreed to expedite the noncredit workforce training component to be included in the second year of the new funding method's implementation and has created a work group to sort out how it will fit into the two-year colleges' metrics, he said. The definition of "workforce training" has changed twice since about 2005, meaning schools have to "scrub their data," or pull out things that no longer meet the definition, he said.

During the meeting, Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, addressed Stovall, saying the new funding method would cost "his college" about $200,000 a year. "How can I look my students in the eye and tell them that my vote caused their tuition to go up?"

The department has included a "hold harmless" year, meaning schools cannot lose any funding in the first year of implementation. But they can gain more. In other years, a school cannot lose more than 2 percent of its funding.

There will be circumstances where not everyone is happy with the end result, Stovall said.

"The challenge is for your institution to understand its deficiencies underneath what outcome-based metrics are in this formula and address those deficiencies so that progression and completion rates and other things are accomplished," he said. "But we supported Act 148, and we now support the policy that's here today. And we work with you through our association. We will get to the point where I'm sure everyone understands what's expected out of them and so they have an opportunity to adapt and meet these measurements."

Metro on 10/18/2017

Print Headline: Funding plan for higher-ed taking shape

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