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The Politics of Performance Funding for Higher Education: Origins, Discontinuations, and Transformations

reviewed by Christine A. Nelson & Shannon L. Lopez - February 14, 2017

coverTitle: The Politics of Performance Funding for Higher Education: Origins, Discontinuations, and Transformations
Author(s): Kevin J. Dougherty and Rebecca S. Natow
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421416905, Pages: 260, Year: 2015
Search for book at Amazon.com

Kevin J. Dougherty and Rebecca S. Natows The Politics of Performance Funding for Higher Education: Origins, Discontinuations, and Transformations makes a significant contribution to the historical, political, and contemporary body of research on performance-based funding (PBF). As echoed by the authors, higher education operates during a time when efficiency and accountability drive policy toward methods like PBF. While the implementation of state-level PBF can be traced back to 1979, little research exists regarding how PBF policy is forged and implemented at the state-level. Through an in-depth qualitative case study approach, Dougherty and Natow examine the dynamics of PBF by effectively applying theories across different, yet complementary, sectors to triangulate their findings. This book addresses where we have been, where we are, and what to expect in the future for performance-based funding in U.S. higher education.

The volume is appropriate for those who are new to PBF and those who are looking to advance scholarship in this field. The authors describe the necessary terms, dynamics, and stakeholders influencing PBF so readers can best navigate higher educations funding system. Several characteristics of this book make it noteworthy. First, its effective writing makes the complex content accessible to many audiences like research scholars, students, and administrators. The scholarly language is tempered by appropriately placed quotes from participants and documents. This balance contextualizes how policy is imagined and applied in practical situations. Furthermore, the authors effectively position questions at various points in the text. This encourages the reader to consider larger issues extending beyond the scope of the book.

Second, Dougherty and Natow highlight eight states in the U.S. (Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington) to reveal the nuances and common themes across PBF. By focusing on a few cases and using various sources of data, the authors richly articulate different PBF trajectories within these states and demonstrate the complex nature of PBF. To examine the many multifaceted factors influencing each states PBF, they construct PBF initiatives in terms of Wave 1 versus Wave 2 and Version 1.0 versus Version 2.0.

Dougherty and Natow frame a policy making wave as a bounded period of time. Wave 1 assesses PBF programs initiated between 1979 and 2000. Wave 2 analyzes programs beginning after 2006. The analogical use of waves is conceptually effective in explaining PBF. This decision communicates state-based PBF as operating semi-autonomously where a break in a wave represents the impact of both internal and external factors. The authors distinguish between Wave 1 and 2 by identifying differences in each waves core motivational concerns. They also analyze the entering and exiting of key stakeholders. Wave 1 PBF is driven by market-oriented motivations. In contrast, Wave 2 is driven by the recession of 2007. Each wave identifies the key stakeholders involved in framing and implementing PBF during these selected timeframes.

Dougherty and Natow further distinguish differences among PBF trajectories by presenting various programs in Versions 1.0 and 2.0. This approach provides another conceptually effective way to frame the complex history of PBF. It also demonstrates how each version reflects the dynamic forces representative of Waves 1 and 2. The versions are defined by each states use of performance indicators and how PBF was incorporated into state funding for higher education.

A third noteworthy aspect of this book is the authors diligent application of a research methodology that contributes to the larger conversation about the financing of U.S. higher education, not solely focusing on PBF literature. Dougherty and Natow draw upon existing PBF studies to articulate a research gap that points to the need for more research in the field. Their qualitative study uncovers the complexities of state-based PBF initiatives in a way that quantitative studies alone could not capture. Through a mix of public policy and policy ideas that are based in sociology, the book provides a solid critique of various theories having implications beyond PBF. This approach demonstrates the strengths of using different theories to understand the origin, implementation, and re-imagination of PBF. This skillful application of multiple theories does not convolute the volumes findings. In the end, their approach helps them avoid engaging in a kind of methodological tunnel vision.

As systems of higher education operate under increasing pressure to show effective use of public monetary investments, there is a growing assumption that PBF will lead these institutions to become more effective and efficient. With this in mind, we offer three important considerations regarding this volume and PBF in general. First, the scope of the text does not address the potential side effects of PBF, which we believe is a limitation. Near the end of the book, Dougherty and Natow share evidence that PBF increases a colleges commitment to investing in programs and policies meant to improve student outcomes. However, there is not enough research to know whether such initiatives result in significantly improved student outcomes and do so without producing substantial negative side effects (p. 189). While it may be beyond the authors research questions, we hope future PBF scholarship will dedicate more attention to the unintended consequences of this funding strategy.

Second, we question the authors decision to rely heavily on political factors (e.g., state-level higher education governance structures and political culture) and geographical factors (e.g., state location) to select the cases for their analysis. While the book mentions the importance and impact of these factors, decisions to omit both diverse states (e.g., in terms of race and ethnicity) and differing governance structures (e.g., consolidated governing boards) are questionable. Expanding the factors used for case selection might have provided deeper insight on PBF from an equity framework. A wider inclusion of states could also (a) critique the current frameworks we use to understand the reality of the higher education policy landscape, (b) examine the implications of state demographics on PBF implementation, and (c) provide a more holistic understanding of PBF.

Finally, this is not so much a critique of the book, but an echoing of the authors concerns about PBF legislation itself. As evidenced throughout this text, PBF legislation is constantly changing and new states are adopting, abandoning, or altering PBF measures. Dougherty and Natow mention that as of September 2014, a total of 38 states have engaged in some form of PBF and 30 states are currently operating under a PBF clause. A year later, the National Conference of State Legislators reported that 32 states had PBF and five additional states were engaged in the process of building a PBF infrastructure (NCSL, 2015). Dougherty and Natow assert that PBF is a complicated process that can often be seen as attempting to research a moving target. We could not agree more. This fact should be taken into account as readers move forward with this important work. We hope our criticisms will be received as an inspirational challenge, rather than an impediment to future research.

This being said, The Politics of Performance Funding for Higher Education clearly articulates the origins, implications, and life cycles of performance-based funding as a complex function of higher education finance that is here to stay. In a time where higher education accountability continues to emphasize performance outcomes, we mirror the authors call for more research in this field.


National Conference of State Legislators. (2015, July 31). Performance-based funding for higher education. Denver, CO: Author. Retrieved from http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/performance-funding.aspx

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 14, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21827, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 3:39:31 AM

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About the Author
  • Christine Nelson
    University of Denver
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTINE A. NELSON, PhD, uses critical theory to explore the politics of financial aid for students of color. Her most recent publication, in collaboration with the American Council on Education, analyzed the funding inequities found at Tribal Colleges and Universities. Her current projects include 1) investigating the financial aid policy at the intersection of tribal sovereignty and 2) exploring college-going patterns of American Indian college students at the intersection of financial aid.
  • Shannon Lopez

    E-mail Author
    SHANNON L. LOPEZ, PhD student, has several years of professional experience in higher education evaluation and accreditation at the programmatic and institutional level. Her research interests include critically investigating the composition of state higher education governance structures and exploring the consequences of such compositions for policy and planning in the state.
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