Policy Research

State Higher Education Execs Are Exploring Ways to Make College More Affordable

Allison Griffin, USA FundsBy Alison Griffin, Senior Vice President, External and Government Relations, USA Funds

 For the fifth straight year, USA Funds® was proud to sponsor the annual state agency workshop organized by SHEEO — the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. The workshop serves as a prelude to SHEEO’s annual conference, which draws state higher education policy staff from across the country. The recent 2015 meeting — “Changing Higher Education to Serve the New American Student” — focused on overcoming the challenges posed by the nation’s rapidly changing college demographics.

Much has been written about the changing face of the “typical” student. We know today’s student is older, tends to live off campus, is more likely to enroll on a part-time basis, and frequently spends as many hours (or more!) at work as in the classroom.

We also know that education delivery is changing to meet the demands of older, more mobile, increasingly sophisticated students, but federal and state student financial aid policies are not structured or funded to meet the financial needs of the “new American student.” Innovations are emerging almost daily to address many of these challenges. The ed-tech space is burgeoning with ideas and solutions, but scalability remains elusive. The interplay of innovation, accountability demands, regulatory oversight, quality assurance needs, and the sheer pace of change often creates an environment of uncertainty and chaos.


However, change is afoot, and there is much optimism among thought leaders and practitioners about how to address challenges to ensure that high-quality, postsecondary education options remain accessible and affordable to students of all backgrounds.

Last week’s workshop focused on difficult issues facing state higher education policymakers who are exploring how to address policies to better meet the needs of nontraditional students. Some highlights:

  • Connecting and using workforce data effectively. Building partnerships between workforce development agencies and higher education is critical to begin linking education and workforce data. If one of higher education’s goals is to prepare students for their careers while meeting the human capital needs of a state or region, information about employment needs and how well graduates are doing in meeting those needs is critical for state policymakers.
  • Focusing on student outcomes and ROI. A focus on outcomes has dominated education policy conversation over the years. A related discussion has examined calls to calculate the return on investment gained from education. However, determining how to measure ROI is a daunting challenge. Policymakers have trouble even coming to agreement on the definition of the ROI of a college degree.
  • Continued innovation with outcomes-based funding. More states are considering and implementing outcomes-based funding programs, and researchers are placing greater focus on analyzing the impact of such policies and programs. While outcomes-based funding programs are popular with policymakers during tough budget periods, the data needed to measure education outcomes is not yet available. Some best practices have emerged, and representatives from Florida, Colorado and Oregon offered insights into their experiences in implementing new funding models.  While there are differences in the design of outcomes-based funding policies, the three states’ representatives agreed that successful policies:

1.  Align to a state completion goal.

2. Include degree completion as a key metric.

3. Rely on a stable and significant funding source.

4. Prioritize underserved students.

  • Analyzing and understanding state-level affordability challenges: Officials from the Education Commission of the States highlighted the database they compiled over the past year to provide a comprehensive, online guide to postsecondary financial aid programs being offered today by each of the 50 states. Drawing on key research findings gleaned from the database, ECS representatives addressed the competing state, regional and national perspectives currently shaping the college affordability discussion. States are under increasing pressure to meet the financial needs of all students, but especially those in the lower income quartiles, to improve student success and overall attainment.

Much, if not most, of the ongoing debate of higher education policy developments is framed in national terms, yet many if not most, of the truly innovative changes are taking place at the state and campus levels. As the SHEEO meetings attest, collaboration among state higher education policymakers can spur discussion, testing and, ultimately, adoption of initiatives designed to help nontraditional as well as traditional students successfully navigate an affordable path through college and into the workforce.

Related posts:

New Online Database Opens Window to State Financial Aid Programs

To Drive Change, Schools and Policymakers Must Collaborate, Clarify Goals and Rethink Delivery of Higher Education

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