New report reveals state policy can do better in helping people get a postsecondary education

Helping mostates-fail-higher educationre people get a postsecondary education is still a national challenge, one in which states are failing. However, thanks to a new report based on years of data, there are six distinct steps states can take immediately to help improve higher education.

States are failing to help people obtain a postsecondary education because they “have no plan for improvement,” says the report, “Renewing the Promise: State Policies to Improve Higher Education Performance,” by the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education (Penn GSE).

The wide-ranging study takes more than ten years of fragmented state higher education data, augmented by interviews with state policymakers, and synthesizes a series of policy recommendations relevant to all states.

“Governors, legislators and higher education leaders need to work together on a public agenda for higher education or fewer people will participate in and graduate with workforce certificates or college degrees,” said Joni Finney, one of the authors of the report.

And although the federal government plays an important role in higher education, notes the report, “…states bear the primary responsibility for developing their own public higher education systems, including policies for funding and governing higher education and for connecting higher education with public schools.”

(Next page: State recommendations 1-3)

By comparing higher education policies in five states (Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, and Texas) that have similar challenges as other states, the report finds that states struggle to develop policies in three general areas: using fiscal resources strategically, aligning education opportunities to student needs, and easing student transitions between educational sectors.

Based on these findings, the report makes the following policy recommendations:

1. Make equity a top priority.

According to the report, “no state can successfully meet their higher education challenges without creating a level playing field for low-income, minority and first-generation college students.”

Examples of this problem can be seen with Texas and Washington, since both states deregulated tuition policy from the states to colleges and universities during the recession.

“These policy actions resulted in high spikes in tuition and the inability of state financial aid programs to keep up with tuition increases,” says the report.

2. Develop political consensus.

States must “develop political consensus for clear goals related to educational opportunity and attainment, as well as mechanisms to monitor and publicly report on those goals,” explains the report.

While all five case study states articulated some goal related to improved educational attainment, the report states that little political consensus was found to advance these goals and implement policies to achieve them.

For example, Illinois developed a new master plan for higher education but failed to identify specific policies for implementation. Political indifference in Washington state resulted in elected officials ignoring plans for improvement in higher education.

And except for Maryland, none of the five states studied had a long-term strategy to link state appropriations, tuition and financial aid in ways that will help achieve higher levels of educational attainment.

3. Work on all areas of performance simultaneously.

The report finds that disconnected efforts are far less effective, compared to working on all higher education performance areas at once.

For instance, many states focus policy attention on improving college completion, but fail to take the necessary steps to promote student preparation or preserve access and affordability—necessary components of a comprehensive policy approach to improve college completion.

(Next page: State recommendations 4-6)

4. Create clear pathways to certificates and degrees.

Greater state policy attention is required to ensure that high school students are prepared to academically succeed in postsecondary education, and to provide easy transfer for students from two-year to four-year institutions without losing credits.

One example of success can be seen with Texas, which has policies that identify and assess college-ready knowledge and skills, developed collaboratively between higher education and K-12 schools.

Another example is with Maryland and Texas, states that guarantee a transfer curriculum based on a set of courses designed to transfer, with no loss of credit hours.

5. Match educational institutions and providers with regional education needs.

The report also finds that, “failure to provide the right mix of institutions or programs matched to student needs compromise goals…”

For example, in an environment of limited public resources, Texas’ aspirations for an additional seven research universities is likely to come at the expense of undergraduate education opportunities for the fast-growing but under-served minority population, notes the report.

Also, states should be aware that policies to expand the mission of community colleges by letting them award baccalaureate degrees, as in Washington, might not be a good solution.

“An expanded mission can increase costs for the state and for students and families due to the higher cost of four-year programs,” reveals the report.

6. Focus on building incentives into state budget and linking finance policies.

State leaders need to build incentives into state budgets to encourage institutional behavior that advances the public agenda for higher education, according to the report.

States must develop comprehensive higher education finance policies, as Maryland has done, that increase institutional productivity, invest in student financial aid and link tuition to the income of the population to be served.

“Implementation of public policies will be the ultimate test of a state’s commitment to higher education,” said Finney. “Ultimately, state leaders must determine whether higher education continues to provide the public benefits that justify this important and ambitious public agenda.”

For more information on how the research was conducted, state profiles, and more, read the report.

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