The NCSL Blog


By Dustin Weeden

Achieving higher education productivity gains—more degrees given current resource constraints—is a common goal as states seek to meet the demands of a highly educated, modern workforce.

College students sitting on stepsWidespread productivity gains, however, have been elusive with graduation rates and attainments rates increasing very slowly.

In an effort to help states improve the portion of working-age residents with high-quality postsecondary credentials, Lumina Foundation established a Productivity Initiative with seven partner states—Arizona, Indiana, Maryland, Montana, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas—in 2009. These states received grants and other technical assistance to help increase postsecondary productivity and college completion in a time with limited state resources.

The initial results of this Productivity Initiative have been evaluated in a new report, "Improving the Yields in Higher Education: Findings from Lumina Foundation’s State-Based Efforts to Increase Productivity in U.S. Higher Education." The report looks at both the process the seven states went through as part of the initiative as well as the particular policy areas that were the focus of the initiative. 

Findings from the four key policy areas reveal there is no silver bullet to increase productivity, but states have made progress in some areas and less progress in others.

  •  Performance funding is spreading. The most substantial efforts and accomplishments in participating states involved promoting, gaining support for, or enacting performance-funding policy, although the full impacts of these policy changes are not yet known.
  • Some student aid and tuition policies were linked to supporting completion. Several states developed modest pricing or financial aid and tuition policies to incentivize completion. Financial-aid policies included requiring students to maintain a higher grade point averages to receive financial aid; allowing aid to cover summer terms; and withdrawing aid from those exceeding time limits for graduation. Tuition policies included temporary tuition freezes, flat tuition over a period of continuous enrollment, tuition caps per term, tuition surcharges for excess credits beyond those required to complete a degree, and tuition discounts for starting at a branch campus.
  •  Redesigns to improve student pathways and transitions were multiple and variedStates implemented systemwide changes to improve student experiences and transitions. All seven states engaged in multiple activities in at least one of four categories: high school-based accelerators such as dual enrollment; improved remediation and course redesign; improved supports for transfer from two- to four-year institutions; and strategies for quicker completion, such as predictive analytics, prior learning assessment, and competency-based programs.
  • Few efficiencies were identified. In the past decades, states have had to seek greater campus efficiencies across operations to address cutbacks and hold down tuition prices, but the initiative had limited success in scaling up efficiencies in administrative and academic functions. According to the report’s findings, the only real improvements were in data collection and information sharing across institutions.

In addition to those findings, the evaluation also found that engagement of institutional leaders to be a critical step to obtain buy-in for new policies and programs. The most effective engagement efforts sought feedback during the policy development and design stages and not just in the final stages of policy approval.

Dustin Weeden is a policy specialist in NCSL's education program.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.