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Penn GSE Report Finds That Many States Have No Plan to Create a More Educated Workforce

Penn GSE's Institute for Research on Higher Education Identifies Flawed Higher Education Policies; Issues Recommendations

CONTACT: Kat Stein at 215-898-9642 or

Thursday, February 27, 2014

PHILADELPHIA — 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 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 to achieve them.

  • 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.
  • 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. 

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. 

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. The study finds:

  • State policies to identify and assess college-ready knowledge and skills, developed collaboratively between higher education and K-12 schools, as Texas is doing, hold promise for increasing educational attainment.
  • Guaranteeing a transfer curriculum based on a set of courses designed to transfer, as Maryland and Texas are doing, with no loss of credit hours is another promising state policy to improve opportunity and achievement.

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 educational attainment.”

  • State leaders often fail to acknowledge the policy tradeoffs between increasing educational opportunity and attainment, on the one hand, and state goals to expand research, on the other. 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 underserved minority population.
  • 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. 

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.

“This report provides state policymakers with key strategies for renewing the promise of higher education in the 21st century,” said Finney. “Implementation of public policies will be the ultimate test of a state’s commitment to higher education.”

About Penn GSE

Penn GSE is one of the nation’s premier research education schools. No other education school enjoys a university environment as supportive of practical knowledge building as the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania. The School is notably entrepreneurial, launching innovative degree programs for practicing professionals and unique partnerships with local educators, and the first-ever business plan competition devoted exclusively to educational products and programs. For further information about Penn GSE, please visit