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State Review Project

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Joni E. Finney, Laura Perna, Michael Armijo, Awilda Rodriguez, and Jamey Rorison

Dr. Finney directed the State Review Project from 2009-13. This project was commissioned by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation for Education.  The purpose of the State Review Project was to better understand the public policies that affected performance in higher education from the early 1990s through 2010-11.

Areas of performance examined included:

  • Preparation for higher education
  • Participation in postsecondary education
  • Completion of certificates and awards
  • Affordability for students and families
  • Research productivity

This project served as a follow-up to the groundbreaking state-by-state report card Measuring Up that Finney directed for a decade while at the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

The results of the research were published in a policy report, Renewing the Promise: State Policies to Improve Higher Education Performance, co-authored by Dr. Finney and published by IRHE. The results have been further highlighted in The Attainment Agenda, published in 2014 by Johns Hopkins Press.

Purpose of the Project

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education’s biennial state-by-state report card, Measuring Up, shows that, between 2000 and 2008, many states improved their performance on key measures of college preparation, participation, and completion. While shedding light on performance in key areas relative to other states, the report cards do not reveal the policies and practices that contribute to a state’s performance or the reasons that some states improved their performance while other states declined. Understanding these issues is a critical step toward identifying how to improve higher education performance within a particular state and subsequently realize the level of degree production required to compete in a global economy. This project improves our understanding of how states can improve degree attainment in the context of fiscal, demographic, and other challenges.


This project draws on data collected from case studies of several states: GeorgiaIllinoisMarylandTexas, and Washington. We used a number of data sources to construct the case studies. For each state, existing data sets, media reports, and government and other documents were first used to produce a “briefing book” that described trends in the state’s higher education performance, as well as the state’s demographic, economic, and political context. The briefing book also presented a preliminary report of the public policies that operate within the state. The briefing books were then used to generate state-specific hypotheses about the relationship between public policy and higher education performance in the state. 

We then used state-specific protocols to collect data explaining the relationships between formal and informal policies and state performance. The research team spent three to five days in each state conducting individual and group interviews with institutional and state leaders who were expected to be knowledgeable about particular dimensions of higher education performance and relevant policies and practices. In each state we spoke with elected officials and staff in the executive and legislative branches of government, staff and leaders of administrative agencies and governing boards, K-12 and higher education leaders, business and civic leaders, and leaders of associations representing other relevant constituencies (e.g., private college associations). Many of these informants provided us with additional relevant supporting documents. A case study report drawing on the multiple sources of data was produced for each state. Cross-state analyses identify themes that cut across all of the states.

Project Team

This project was completed by a team of researchers from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and The Institute for Research on Higher Education (IRHE). This team was led by Joni Finney and Laura Perna, co-directors of the project and professors of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania.

The project was sponsored by the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. 


The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education promotes public policies that enhance Americans’ opportunities to pursue and achieve high-quality education and training beyond high school. As an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, the National Center prepares action-oriented analyses of pressing policy issues facing the states and the nation regarding opportunity and achievement in higher education—including two- and four-year, public and private, for-profit and nonprofit institutions. The National Center communicates performance results and key findings to the public, to civic, business, and higher education leaders, and to state and federal leaders who are in positions to improve higher education policy. This publication is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation for Education. The statements and views in this report do not necessarily reflect those of the funders and are solely the responsibility of its authors and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Founded in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin, the University of Pennsylvania is America’s first university and one of the world’s premier research universities. The Penn Graduate School of Education (Penn GSE)—one of only three schools of education in an Ivy League institution—is recognized as one of the best in the United States. Penn GSE is broadly interdisciplinary with a long history of excellence in qualitative research, language and literacy studies, practitioner inquiry and teacher education, quantitative research, policy studies, evaluation, higher education, and psychology and human development. Faculty in the School’s Higher Education Division focus their research on access and equity; diversity and higher education; policy and public financing; civic engagement; organizational change; and the impact of the marketplace on colleges and universities.

Advisory Board

Julie Davis Bell
Education Program Director, National Conference of State Legislatures

Patrick J. Kelly
Senior Associate, National Center for Higher Education Management Systems

Paul E. Lingenfelter
President, State Higher Education Executive Officers

Richard C. Richardson, Jr.
Professor Emeritus of Higher Education, New York University 
Jane V. Wellman
Executive Director, Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity, and Affordability
Executive Director, National Association of System Heads