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Tech college system ready for performance-based approach

Wisconsin Tech College System President Morna Foy says that performance-based funding is certainly the right direction to go in paying for the state’s higher education efforts. She just wants to see it done in steps, not all at once.

“Our budget request actually requests a performance funding component,” Foy told WisPolitics.com during her first week in her new post. She said she hopes Gov. Scott Walker’s plans include a "measured approach."

For the time being, WTCS has requested only a $2 million increase in general aid to be tied to certain performance metrics. The system has suggested using things like job placement rates, the number of students graduating with a diploma or certificate or the number of programs tied to “Technical Skill Attainment” within various industries. The money would come in the second year of the budget to allow system officials time to build a new performance-based system.

It's a step the system is willing to take.

That’s because Foy, a long-time administrator for WTCS and a former Legislative Audit Bureau project analyst, understands the desire of Walker and lawmakers to tie the system’s funding to performance in areas like job creation and job placement. She says the system should be accountable to taxpayers and businesses looking to narrow the skills gap in the state. However, she wants to make sure that legislators know which approaches work and which don’t.

“Tennessee is always the state that’s brought up because they’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Foy said. “They’ve gone to a fully, 100 percent outcome-based funding mechanism. But it took them awhile to get there, and they didn’t stick with the performance measures they had 30 years ago. ... They gave themselves the flexibility to tweak and modify and dump.”

That doesn’t just have to apply to WTCS, Foy said. Walker has suggested performance measures for the University of Wisconsin System, but some higher ed observers have been skeptical of how that would work at the comprehensive four-year universities. Foy said that while UW and WTCS have different missions -- and that they’d likely need to measure some different outcomes -- such an approach could work.

“I do think that there are going to be different challenges for both of our systems in developing appropriate models and collecting the data and tracking it,” Foy said. “We’re hoping that we’re going to build [accountability systems], and I think the university’s hope would also be the same. That there will be this process ... will build more connection between us and policy makers and constituents. And it’s going to strengthen our focus.”

But Foy says that if the tech colleges are going to help boost the state economy and get people back in good-paying, sustainable jobs, they’re going to need more resources to do it. And while the Act 10 changes did offer some breathing room, it wasn’t a “one-for-one tradeoff” after the system’s state support was cut by nearly 30 percent. The agency estimates that after Act 10 savings were accounted for, a total of $20.4 million was lost over the biennium.

“I think we are kind of at a point right now where we are managing our finances, but we are being asked to do more than just manage our finances and do more than what we did last year. We’re being asked not just to serve our students, but do new things: deliver education in more dynamic ways, reach off more off campus and create more opportunities for different kind of learners in different kind of situations.”

That’s why WTCS has requested a $88 million increase in categorical aid to target a new class of 39,000 additional students. That includes $60 million over the biennium for Wisconsin Skills Link, which would dole out competitive grants to students looking for longer-term solutions to boosting their chances in the workforce as well. The system also requested $20 million for Adult Career Pathways, a program that attempts to incrementally boost the occupational skills and credentials of Wisconsin residents as they simultaneously make their way up through different levels of employment.

While Foy hopes legislators see fit to let WTCS focus on these priorities or offer other grants, she’s just happy that state government is committing to a new investment in workforce development.

“We’re just excited about the idea that the state is prioritizing this,” Foy said. “You know it’s been a problem for years. Most of the money that came for this very targeted reason came from the federal government. Because the federal government has got all these rules about it and it’s not necessarily sensitive or in tune with what Wisconsin needs or, even farther down, what local communities need or want.”

While Foy wants to make sure the system is responding to different stakeholders across the state, a move by Republicans in the last session made the case that the business community was being left out. Rep. Mark Honadel and Sen. Glenn Grothman introduced companion bills that would have amended the composition of technical college district boards to include at least six members from the business community. Right now, boards must have at least two employers out of their nine members. That bill was later amended to mandate that the Milwaukee Area Technical College Board should include at least five employers.

Foy believes the system is already responsive to the needs of the business community and that the district boards, which already guarantee employers a seat at the table, aren’t the only way to make their needs known to the system.

“Every single one of our programs, more than 300 across the state, has an advisory board made up of employers,” Foy said. “Those are the individuals that tell us, ‘What you are teaching in that program is not what we are doing in the workplace.’ Or ‘Yes, there was a time that we needed an IT specialist in blah blah. We’ve evolved. That’s not what we’re doing anymore.’”

Listen to the interview.

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