Earlier this month, Texas State Technical College System (TSTC) took an unprecedented step.

Unprecedented, that is, for American institutions of higher learning.

TSTC has hit on the novel idea that it should be judged-and paid-on the basis of results.

In the past, most university leaders have resisted mightily proposals to link their institutions’ state funding with results such as graduation rates, etc. Not so with TSTC, a system of public two-year postsecondary institutions offering technical training. At present, in collaboration with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, TSTC is crafting a model on the basis of which all of its state funding will depend on the employment and earnings of its graduates.

Simply put, under the plan, TSTC will not receive state funding for a student until and unless that student is placed in a job. One is hard-put to imagine an arrangement better suited to providing the accountability to which taxpayers are entitled.

Many of the details of the plan remain to be worked out. Moreover, the difference in mission between TSTC and other higher-education institutions prevent it from being instantly applicable universally.

But what does apply–and more than ever in these days of rising tuitions and declining learning outcomes–is the principle animating TSTC’s “returned-value model,” which, stated baldly, is that results matter in every other aspect of life; it’s high time that they matter more in higher education also. The current funding formula for Texas public higher education is based primarily on the number of students enrolled at each institution. The assumption has been that, once enrolled, the universities would know what to do with the students, that is, how to educate them.

But recent studies, such as last year’s report, Academically Adrift, call this assumption into question, to put it mildly. Tracking several thousand traditional students from the time that they enrolled in Fall 2005 to Spring 2009, “across a wide range of four-year colleges and universities,” Adrift reports that 45 percent of students showed “little if any growth over the first two years of college in their ability to perform tasks requiring critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA).” After fully four years in college, more than one in three (36 percent) continued to show “little if any growth.”

All of this leads to the following modest proposal: Why not base state funding for public colleges and universities, or at least a substantial portion of it, on actual student learning, as measured by the CLA or the comparable Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP)?

South Dakota has, in fact, already done just this. Texas should waste no time in following South Dakota. In the process, both could become leaders for the rest of the country.

-Thomas Lindsay, Ph.D.