- Associated Press - Thursday, January 5, 2017

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - The standards for a higher education incentives program based on school performance were so lacking that three Missouri universities were able to get more money by changing the benchmarks against which they were measured, according to an audit released Thursday by the Missouri auditor.

In 2016, Missouri State Southern University, Missouri Western State University and Northwest Missouri State University took advantage of the ambiguous rules of a Missouri Department of Education Performance Funding Program, which has awarded $109 million to Missouri universities since 2014.

The performance funding program gives money to schools based on performance in areas such as student success, quality of learning and financial responsibility. One category allowed each school to submit its own criteria based on its mission.

The audit found colleges and universities submitted their own data and pick their own peer institutions for comparison, making it possible for schools to submit favorable data and choose lower-performing schools as peers.

The universities were not at fault for taking advantage of opportunities to get more money. The auditor’s report said incomplete guidelines about standards could allow various interpretations from each school.

The auditors also noted problems with data, saying the department didn’t get enough detailed records about job placement and student learning, and they didn’t go far enough to verify the information they had.

There is a reason schools have a say in designing the performance criteria, said former Sen. David Pearce, whose bill started the program.

It’s difficult to compare all public universities in the state given their unique structures, Pearce said. For example, the University of Missouri Science and Technology, which is known for its commitment to science and math fields, can’t be directly compared to a small public liberal arts school such as Truman State University.

“There’s no one size fits all,” he said.

In a statement Thursday, the education department said it has created more guidelines for determining peer groups and will discuss the audit in a task force later this year.

In a response in the auditor’s report, the department of education said implementing better guidance for reporting data will be “a high priority” moving forward.

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