The idea of performance contracts, or funding according to results, is part of a recently released draft of a state strategic master plan for higher education.

“There seems to be a gradually evolving interest by more people in coming to some kind of agreement or relationship” between legislative appropriation and higher education accountability, said Jane Sherman, WSU vice provost for academic policy and evaluation in Olympia.

The idea prompted WSU to prepare a performance agreement prototype in February 2005. It outlined potential increases in enrollment, degrees granted, nonstate research funding, student research experiences and more as returns for increasing state investment through 2011.

Some months ago, Sherman said, state Democratic leaders held a one-day showcase with higher education leaders that included discussion of performance agreements.

The recent strategic plan draft by the state Higher Education Coordinating Board includes sections on monitoring and funding higher education for results. It advocates replacing the common method of funding higher ed — according to enrollment — with a method that increases per-student funding. It also would strengthen higher ed accountability and allocate at least some of the funding as rewards for desired outcomes.

The board will present the final 10-year plan to the 2008 state legislature for consideration.

Pros and cons
The benefits — or not — to WSU of performance contracts would “depend on the shape of the idea,” Sherman said. Right now, “everybody has a different take on how it might look.”

She mentioned two concerns that WSU has raised in considering performance agreements:

• If the state expects improvement when it increases funding, then it must be ready to accept less achievement if it cuts the higher education budget.

• It’s difficult to present all that a university of WSU’s size and scope is doing in a simple package to legislators. But that’s necessary so everyone can determine if WSU is doing what legislators want it to do.

“It would be helpful for communication and accountability,” Sherman said, “but it’s difficult to articulate — succinctly — that we’re doing a good job.”

So, it’s likely WSU will keep working on it.

“Performance agreements seem to be emerging as a somewhat more viable idea,” Sherman said. “They may eventually emerge in a useful shape — if we all can decide what that would be.”