Helping more people get a postsecondary education is a national challenge that many large states are failing to accomplish because these states have no plan for improvement, according to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education (Penn GSE). The unique and wide-ranging study takes more than ten years’ of often fragmented state higher education data, augmented by extensive interviews with state policymakers, and synthesizes a series of policy recommendations relevant to all states.
The report, Renewing the Promise: State Policies to Improve Higher Education, finds that states are largely failing to meet the challenge of creating a more educated workforce because they lack a cohesive long-term strategy. The study also finds that some states have abandoned their efforts in the face of changing political climates and the economic downturn. It notes that all states are at a crucial turning point as they begin to allocate financial resources within a rebounding economy.
“This report highlights the critical role states play in defining higher education opportunity for its citizens,” said Joni E. Finney, one of the authors of the report. “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.”
Penn GSE’s Institute of Research on Higher Education (IRHE) embarked on its ambitious comparison of higher education policies by examining five states (Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Texas, and Washington) that have similar challenges as other states, such as the need to increase educational attainment and close persistent gaps in opportunity by race, ethnicity, income and geography. Examining performance and policies from the early 1990s through 2010, Renewing the Promise: State Policies to Improve Higher Education Performance offers insights into how states deal with higher education in difficult financial times, as well as how historical policies set the context for higher education performance over time.
The research team, led by Penn GSE professors Joni E. Finney and Laura W. Perna along with Higher Education Policy Institute president Patrick M. Callan, made several policy recommendations in the report, including:
Make equity a top priority. The growing gaps in educational opportunity and attainment are one of the most serious issues facing higher education. 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 needed policy change include:
- Texas and Washington deregulated tuition policy from the states to colleges and universities during the Great Recession. These policy actions resulted in high spikes in tuition and the inability of state financial aid programs to keep up with tuition increases.
- Washington had a robust, nationally recognized, need-based financial aid program, however this program can no longer keep up with increases in tuition.
- In Georgia, state leaders, as well as some institutional leaders, have failed to come to grips with the reality that the state’s future success is linked to opportunities for African Americans and Latinos and policies for increasing their educational success are lacking.
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.” The report also finds that state leadership must work together to establish goals for increased certificate and degree attainment.
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.