As policymakers and higher education leaders convene in Nashville this week to review Tennessee’s outcomes-based funding (OBF) formula for the state’s public colleges and universities, they should use this opportunity to advance equity for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. Officials should review the OBF formula using an equity lens and redesign the formula to incentivize the enrollment and success of Black and Latino students who, too often, are underrepresented in and underserved by Tennessee’s public higher education institutions.

In 1979, Tennessee was the first state to adopt a performance-based funding formula for public colleges. Now, Tennessee uses a complex model that awards institutions a share of the state’s overall available appropriations based on specific outcomes related to enrollment and completion. The formula offers additional premiums for certain “focus populations,” which are currently adult, low-income, and academically underprepared students. So, what’s missing? An explicit focus on historically excluded students of color.

Racial disparities persist in higher education in Tennessee. Just 35% of Black students and 46% of Latino students graduate college within six years, compared to 54% of their white peers. As Ed Trust’s “Hard Truths” report noted, the only way to eliminate racial disparities is to tackle them head on. That’s why — in our fall 2020 “Tennessee: ‘Segregation Forever’” report — The Education Trust in Tennessee urged the state to add Black and Latino students as focus populations in the statewide funding formula for both community colleges and four-year universities.

This is something state leaders can do. And they don’t have to do it on their own. We — along with our partners — stand ready to help.

A recent report and accompanying handbook from The Education Trust outlines several steps for the design and implementation of equity-focused funding formulas that state leaders can use to reward institutions for enrolling and graduating students of color. We leveraged the release of the national report to reignite conversations with Tennessee higher education advocates, including our higher education policy council, on how to urge policymakers to make changes to the funding formula. From these meetings, conversations, and publications, three key elements emerged for making the case to state policymakers moving forward.

Emphasize the need to name race in metrics. Tennessee’s lawmakers and higher education policymakers have been reluctant to adopt policies that specifically address postsecondary access and success for students of color, opting instead for broad programs to increase opportunities for all students. However, data shows that Black and Latino students in Tennessee are not attending and completing college at the same rates as their white peers. Advocates, and even many state policymakers, acknowledge that prioritizing Black and Latino students is a racial justice issue and a critical component in achieving Tennessee’s postsecondary attainment goals.

Create accountability for institutional equity. Institutions may place a higher emphasis on recruiting, enrolling, and retaining Black and Latino students if the state incentivizes those efforts in the funding formula. Budgets are often an institution’s most irrefutable public value statement, and those budgets are largely determined by the metrics set by funding sources. After last summer’s global protests for racial justice, Tennessee’s higher education leaders publicly committed to making their campuses more equitable. Leveraging metrics for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds in the OBF formula can increase accountability and help hold campuses to those commitments.

Demystify Tennessee’s outcomes-based funding formula and review process. Again, Tennessee’s OBF formula is complex, but we have a duty to make it accessible to advocates. We’re employing a multiyear strategy to train advocates on championing resource equity and improving the funding formula in Tennessee’s P-12 system. We’ve learned lessons on demystifying policy from our P-12 strategy that may work well with OBF too — bringing in experts from exemplar states, breaking the issue down in a multipart learning series, and, ultimately, connecting the OBF formula to students’ experience on campus.

As higher education leaders gather to review and update the state OBF formula this week, advocates will pay close attention to the priorities and values that emerge during their review. We know that our work ahead is to continue making a compelling evidence-based case for Black and Latino students to be identified as focus populations and to engage and equip advocates to lend their voices on behalf of students across the state. Want to help us push for equity in Tennessee’s funding formula for public colleges? Sign up here and follow us on Twitter.