Incentivizing Equity: A Q&A with University of Northern Colorado Professor Amy Li

Insights & Outlooks: Your work centers on the topic of state higher education accountability policies and their impact on educational equity. In a few sentences, what are the key findings of your research?

Dr. Amy Li: My work on accountability has focused on state performance funding policies. Key findings about performance funding are that these policies can play a role in focusing institutional attention towards retaining and graduating students. To balance completion priorities with access and opportunity, these policies should reward institutions that help historically underrepresented students graduate. These identities include students of color (racial/ethnic minorities), and lower-income, first-generation, and returning/adult students.

Insights & Outlooks: What first led you to the topic of equity in higher education as a research area?

Dr. Amy Li: When I first started looking at outcomes-focused accountability policies in higher education, I found that institutions would behave in ways that did not always serve the best interests of students with lesser academic preparation, which are disproportionately students of color and students from lower-income family backgrounds. Institutions under pressure to confer more degrees would recruit more students who are likely to graduate anyways, and have fewer incentives to serve students who are less prepared academically. As a woman of color and an immigrant myself, I know how difficult it can be to navigate pathways to enter college, and to find support services in college such as advising and mentoring. These support services can encourage students to persist in college. The college population has also grown increasingly diverse, and I think public policies should reflect the value of this growing diversity. I don’t think we can achieve greater college completion without recognizing that students from marginalized backgrounds need greater investment and resources to enter and persist in college.  

Insights & Outlooks: What are some promising examples of how states can balance their interest in providing performance-based accountability while promoting greater access and equity at the same time? How do performance incentives for underserved students work, and could this model be applied to federal policy?

Dr. Amy Li: More and more states are recognizing that institutions that serve high proportions of students of color and lower-income students should be rewarded for serving these students. Performance funding policies have “equity metrics” that give additional resources to institutions that retain and graduate students from diverse backgrounds. An institution receives a greater amount of funding for retaining or graduating a student with marginalized identities. Depending on state demographics and educational attainment goals, this usually means minoritized racial/ethnic backgrounds (Black, LatinX, Native American, rarely Asian American, although I do think Asians should be considered minoritized), Pell-grant recipients, first-generation, or older students. In terms of applying to federal policy, I don’t think there is a similar idea that would work at the federal level, because governing and financing higher education is so decentralized and primarily managed at the state or regional level. However, there are federal accountability structures, for example, on student loan default and repayment rates, and on gainful employment.

Insights & Outlooks: As federal policymakers look to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, what can they learn from the past decade of state accountability policies?

Dr. Amy Li: I think that higher education accountability policies are here to stay, and that public institutions should expect external accountability. After all, part of the mission of public institutions is to educate the general population. Even though it’s a shrinking part of the pot, institutions still receive taxpayer funds in the form of state appropriations, and receive federal financial aid that follows the student. I think that greater oversight and transparency in how colleges use these funds is the norm.