Learning to Thrive with Performance-Based Funding

By Anthony Barbar    //    Volume 26,  Number 4   //    September/October 2018

When John Kelly arrived as the new president of Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in March 2014, I had been chair of the board of trustees for a year. We needed a strong leader to change the culture at the university—my alma mater—and propel it to a new era of success.

Dr. Kelly’s vision and enthusiasm were contagious, and I could tell he was serious about taking the university to higher levels of achievement and recognition. He immediately reached out to a number of stakeholders, seeking counsel and participation for a new strategic plan.

Around the same time Dr. Kelly was hired, the Florida Board of Governors introduced a new performance-based funding model to evaluate the state’s public universities. FAU did not fare well that first year, scoring low overall because of poor performance in two areas: the freshman retention rate and the six-year graduation rate for first-time undergraduate students.

FAU traditionally was a commuter school with more than 70 percent of its students attending part-time. Over the years, we argued that the state should not hold FAU to the same standards as universities with traditional full-time student bodies. However, these metrics had never been tied to funding. The university was facing a $7 million budget reduction, subject to successful completion of a comprehensive remediation plan.

Subject matter experts across the university were tasked with creating programs to quickly improve performance. Inspired by their energetic new leader, they did not disappoint. Among the strategies was making advising services more accessible to commuter students. For example, the advising staff began offering sessions in parking garages, an effort that garnered attention in national higher education publications and the local press. Other strategies included hiring 26 academic advisers, introducing a summer program to help incoming freshmen get off on the right foot, and launching a campaign that encouraged students to declare majors early, thus giving them a specific academic focus.

These changes yielded impressive results. Within just one year, FAU’s metrics had improved so dramatically that the $7 million was restored and the university qualified for an additional $11.3 million in state funding. The metrics that forced us to change ultimately made the university better. By 2016, FAU improved so significantly that we were the top-ranked university in the state.

As the strategic plan took shape, FAU used many of the new programs to cultivate a more competitive student body. We also raised admission requirements. Surprisingly, the number of applications increased, and the caliber of students admitted continues to rise each year. For its current freshman class, the university received more than 20,000 applications—a spike following a successful football season—and admitted around 3,200 freshmen. Their average GPA is 3.95. We firmly believe that as the university’s reputation improves on the national stage—both academically and athletically—we will attract more impressive students who want to be part of the overall culture of success.

The strategic plan, completed in the spring of 2015, is titled “The Race to Excellence.” Truly a working document, the strategic plan is acknowledged nearly every day—and not just by the administration or trustees. The buy-in we’ve received from the faculty, along with their contributions, has been crucial to achieving the plan’s goals and advancing shared governance.

Our community also has been vital to our success. Support from generous donors, legislators who lobby on our behalf, and industry leaders who enhance our programs will continue to help us progress.

Shortly after Dr. Kelly’s arrival, he set a goal of making FAU “America’s fastest improving university,” an aspiration that appears in boldface type on the first page of the strategic plan. It’s something we strive toward every day—and I am confident we will succeed. It’s the sense of confidence that comes from having a leader who inspires people to be their best, creating a solid plan and staying focused, and yes, embracing those dreaded metrics.