The NCSL Blog

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By Andrew Smalley

As states strive to increase postsecondary graduation rates, legislators will look to develop statewide plans and targets to meet these goals.

From left, SHEEO Association President Rob Anderson, President of the Colorado Community College System Joe Garcia, Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed and Ben Cannon, executive director of the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission. A key component of these efforts will be close collaboration with leaders, including State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEOs).

 A panel discussion moderated Rob Anderson, the SHEEO association president, at the 15th annual NCSL Legislative Institute on Higher Education between SHEEOs from Colorado, Oregon and Louisiana, considered the challenges of increasing postsecondary attainment in a fiscally limited environment.

The executives pushed lawmakers and staff to expand their conceptions of what successful post-secondary education looks like. “We have to broaden our understanding of post-secondary education," said Ben Cannon, executive director of the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission. "It is not necessarily the highest cost bachelor’s degree at a flagship research university. It should include workforce training and on-the-job training.” 

Several potential policy reforms that could help more students follow non-traditional pathways to a degree or certificate leading to a successful career were also discussed. 

“Concurrent or dual enrollment allows students to start earning credit for college while in high school," said Joe Garcia, president of the Colorado Community College System and former executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. "These programs make it more likely a student will enroll in college and then be ready for college.” 

Kim Hunter Reed, the Louisiana commissioner of higher education, mentioned apprenticeship programs and called on legislators to take an active interest in issues such as coursework remediation reforms.

“We are looking to get to a place to where no institution is teaching remedial the way they are now," she said. "If your institution is not moving towards remediation with labs and tutoring, you need to find out why that is not happening. Remedial education reform is proven, and we need to go all in."

Cannon highlighted efforts in Oregon to create a guaranteed transfer pathway for credits between schools. “Students were losing credits along the way, and this added time and cost,” he said.  

SHEEOs also advocated for legislators to take proactive roles in state higher education policy. “A legislature’s role is to make sure there is accountability,” Garcia said.

Martha Snyder, senior director at HCM Strategists, talked about how a state strategic finance plan can help advance attainment goals and how Lumina Foundation’s Strategy Labs can provide technical assistance in this process.

“States are going to have to simultaneously find new revenues, be more strategic and be more efficient,” she said, adding that the first step to consider is what the state’s attainment goals are and how close the state is to achieving those targets. 

Cannon argued that state coordinating commissions are the best tools to develop these goals. “If you want a comprehensive plan for financing attainment goals, you are not particularly well-served asking the colleges and universities to make those plans,” he said. “One of the benefits of having a coordinating commission is that we are advocates for the state’s attainment goals.”

The panel discussed how state budgeting and strategic planning can be used to create innovative and nimble systems to educate increasingly diverse student populations. For this to effectively happen, both legislators and members of higher education institutions will need to further develop practical approaches to the wide-reaching challenges of higher education.

“People often think about higher education in a silo,” Hunter Reed said. “But when you think about all the groups that will be impacted, it makes sense to bring these groups together.”

Andrew Smalley is an intern 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.