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Rise in Short-Term Certificates Linked to Accountability Changes for Colleges

By funding colleges according to their outputs, policymakers in some state are trying to motivate colleges to increase degree productivity.  

Results of new research looking at the state of Washington state's performance-accountability system show that the approach had little immediate effect on retention rates or the number of associate's degrees awarded. It did, however, result in students earning more short-term certificates.

The journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis released results today of the study by Nicholas Hillman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, David Tandberg of Florida State University, and Alisa Fryar of the University of Oklahoma.

(The full article and a video author interview are available on the American Education Research Association website.)

The authors express concern about the unintended consequences of Washington' State Student Achievement Initiative, which has been in place since 2007. Tying state financing to college performance was expected to create an incentive for colleges to produce more degree recipients and retain students at higher rates.

The paper acknowledges that retaining students year to year and keeping them enrolled through completion of an associate's degree may have been more complicated than designers of the policy anticipated.

Certificates are easier for colleges to produce and students to earn, but are not as valuable in the job market as an associate's degree.  The researchers also noted that short-term credentials may not count toward future academic degree programs, leading many to be less likely to continue their education.

Another study on career-related certificates in the same journal in November revealed that those earned in a year or less had small financial payoffs, on average.

While the Washington system designed its performance-based model differently from others used in the past, the researchers discovered that the results are consistent with recent results in Tennessee and Pennsylvania indicating that performance funding has not improved retention and graduation rates.

"Trying state financing to college 'performance' is expected to create an incentive for colleges to produce more degree recipients and retain students at higher rates, but evidence from the Washington experiment suggests that these results do not occur in systematic ways, " the report concludes.



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