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College presidents' pay should be tied to academic success

On Friday, Maryland became the first state to set minimum academic performance standards for Division I coaches and athletic directors to qualify for salary bonuses. In an era when NCAA football and basketball are big business, Maryland is rewarding at least minimum academic grit alongside greater athletic glory. Every state should do the same.

But at a time when our country confronts a significant shortfall in college degrees, unacceptably low graduation rates for working-class students and students of color, and unprecedented levels of student debt, why not tie the pay of all college leaders to student success?

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If athletic coaches are expected to focus on academic performance as well as winning percentages, surely college presidents should be compensated according to how much their institutions contribute to the public good in terms of student access, affordability and success — not just fundraising prowess or US News and World Report prestige.

There's a performance and accountability failure in higher education when the president of the University of Houston receives a compensation package of $1.3 million — fifth highest among public colleges in the nation — despite a 16 percent four-year graduation rate.

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You see the same kind of failure at Michigan State, whose president received nearly $700,000 (plus a free house and car) despite leading an institution where only one in 10 black male students graduated on time in 2011.

And we have a values failure in higher education when the University of Delaware president receives nearly $800,000 in compensation even though only 10 percent of the students enrolled in his school come from working-class families. That ranks in the bottom 5 percent of all colleges nationally. And the University of Delaware is a public institution.

University leaders are not powerless to affect outcomes. They can and have made all the difference in higher education when it comes to access, affordability and student success.

Leaders of Franklin & Marshall College, for example, spurred by an identity crisis, hired a new president, substantially reinvested in their financial aid budget and tripled their enrollment of working-class students from 5 percent to 17 percent in only three years.

Employing a sophisticated data tracking system and devoted staff, leaders at Florida State University determined where their students were falling between the cracks and where to target academic advising. By recognizing that their black, low-income males were failing to return to school every year — not just between their first and second years like most other students — FSU was able to develop interventions helping them graduate black male students at a rate three times higher than Michigan State, all the while holding similar GPA and SAT admission standards.

Unfortunately, sometimes external pressure is needed to spur college leaders to place a greater priority on student success.

The Obama administration is about to provide some of that external pressure. Expected this fall are regulations that tie federal financial aid to the performance of career training programs and teacher preparation programs. These specific programs will have to demonstrate a positive impact on students and families in exchange for continued eligibility to receive federal financial aid.

Already, you can hear college presidents and their lobbyists object. But accountability in higher education works.

In 2013, the NCAA banned the University of Connecticut men's basketball team from postseason competition when its Academic Progress Rate fell below a standard indicating a majority of team members would graduate. The next year, the UConn men's basketball team bounced back, regaining eligibility and winning the NCAA title.

Likewise, over 10 years ago, 14 historically black colleges risked losing access to federal financial aid when too many of their students defaulted repeatedly on their student loans. Three years later, 12 of 14 improved. Faced with a heavy dose of tough love, the colleges banded together to support and mentor students — before, during and after enrollment — to make timely loan payments and lower default rates.

But the NCAA and federal government shouldn't be alone in demanding better student results from college leaders. States, university systems and boards of trustees should also demand more of college presidents, provosts and deans by tying their compensation packages to student access, affordability and success levels.

The University System of Maryland took a bold step last week to remind athletic staff of their obligation to student-athletes. Others should follow suit and go further, reminding all university leaders that their primary responsibility is to students. Because accountability, particularly when it touches the pocketbook, focuses the mind.

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Mary Nguyen Barry is a policy analyst with Education Reform Now, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank based in Washington, D.C. Her email is mary.barry@edreformnow.org.

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