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Colleges and Policymakers Working Together

By Emily Rogan

Report finds that simultaneous, large-scale state policy and college pathway changes are vital to improving student success.

Administrators and educators at community colleges across the nation are creating innovative and effective programs to improve student completion and success rates.

However, those efforts would likely be more successful if college and state leaders moved out of their respective silos and began working together, according to Policy Meets Pathways, A State Policy Agenda for Transformational Change, a new report from the Boston-based nonprofit Jobs for the Future (JFF).

The result of three years of research, the report looks at the completion efforts of nine community colleges, in Ohio, Florida and North Carolina. These colleges are part of the Completion By Design initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The report finds that effective change at these colleges is a result of two things happening at once: The colleges are implementing structured pathways to increase degree completion, while state leaders are identifying and implementing state policy changes that will support the colleges’ work.

College and state leaders on the same team

College leaders and state policymakers participating in the research have taken an honest assessment of student progression and completion rates and determined that the status quo is not working. They’ve committed to what the report’s author, Lara Couturier, describes as “transformational change.”

Too often, state policymakers and college leaders “are trains on their own tracks,” says Couturier, who is program director of JFF’s Postsecondary State Policy team. “Colleges are doing innovative pilots, and states are changing policy, but not necessarily in reaction to the work colleges are doing. The report calls on the field to bring it together; how do we make state policy more responsive to colleges’ needs?”

Another big problem, says Couturier, is that small-scale interventions and program redesigns won’t help enough community college students. “We need to design for scale from the beginning. We’ve learned that we don’t have enough money to keep doing small tests and pilots. We need a visionary design from the outset to impact hundreds of thousands of students.”

JFF’s newly created DesignForScale model helps state policymakers reform antiquated, irrelevant legislation that is often in conflict with what community colleges need to improve completion rates. The goal is to instead create “a visionary policy environment that encourages and supports colleges to implement integrated, evidence-based student success reforms at scale,” the report says.

Going forward

The response to the report has been “unbelievable,” Couturier says. “There are conversations happening in the field, and people are beginning to debate. … Leaders are stepping back, looking at the environment and asking, ‘What should policy look like? What do our colleges need from us?’”

Couturier believes that colleges, their system organization and state policymakers can improve student success, but only if they work together. She emphasizes the importance of convening college leaders and faculty members statewide, as well as engaging other stakeholders, such as employers and legislators.

“Our work in the field over the last 10 years has given us a much deeper understanding of what matters for student success,” Couturier says. “Multiple, integrated strategies are key to how we tie it all together and move forward.”

Is your college or system working with state policymakers to move the needle on completion rates? Tell us how in the Comments.

Emily Rogan

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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