The goal of the WICHE Task Force was to catalyze state-level progress in closing postsecondary attainment gaps. With funding from Lumina Foundation, WICHE convened the Task Force of cross-sector state teams to address their states’ most pressing disparities in credential attainment and to jointly develop regional recommendations for the West.
The Task Force held three interstate meetings between 2018 and 2020, bringing together state team members with subject-matter experts to examine state data, craft and refine state-level approaches to addressing identified attainment gaps, and to share lessons learned. During the final year of the project, the Task Force focused on developing broadly applicable recommendations, as well as responding to COVID-19 with an equity lens.
State teams in Arizona and Wyoming took different approaches based upon their unique state contexts, while also incorporating lessons learned from one another and states across the country engaged in complementary work – from Colorado to Tennessee to Utah.
State-level postsecondary attainment is a simple statistic that encapsulates a complicated and deeply interconnected web of contributing factors, some within and some beyond state influence. Identifying which strands a state can strengthen for meaningful impact requires a sustained and ever-evolving effort. Over the course of the project, participants learned valuable lessons about investing in process, building community, and using data to develop state-level approaches to closing attainment gaps. These lessons offer broadly applicable insights, while also highlighting the importance of state and local context.
Each state’s higher education ecosystem operates in a unique context. For example, the governance structure of the state’s institutions, the level of involvement of policymakers (such as governor’s offices and legislatures) in higher education decision-making, and the way community-based organizations contribute to state-level discussions should factor into the structure selected for state-level attainment work. Adopting a coordinating mechanism that works with and leverages a state’s existing structures will support longevity.
Improving attainment rates is the work of years, not months. Thoughtful state-level approaches, whether policy or practice oriented, take time to develop, implement, track, and revise. Particularly when working with groups that the states and institutions have historically not provided the right supports to, building trust and engagement takes time. And while ambitious goals can serve an important purpose in catalyzing progress, they must be paired with concrete, achievable action steps.
While the multifaceted nature of educational attainment gaps requires that sectors work together to address them, cross-sector work does not spontaneously occur, much less succeed. It requires dedicated coordination and resources to be effective. Funding and project management support are critical for the development of a coordinating entity that can routinely convene stakeholders and facilitate action planning.
The concept of “attainment,” in relation to goals or gaps, is not something that enjoys widespread recognition and understanding outside of the higher education policy space. Successfully communicating the issues at play in a way that engages stakeholders and meaningfully solicits their input takes careful consideration. Promising strategies include avoiding educational jargon, utilizing outside experts, and localizing the conversation whenever possible. For example, convening discussions centered on the impacts of opportunity gaps on specific populations, such as by geography, age, and race/ethnicity can help states to understand how our current structures and systems are and are not working for different groups.
Perhaps most importantly, community can only be built through mutual trust. One approach to begin building trust is to structure engagement for community ownership. For example, by having the coordinating entity serving as a resource and steward of the process, rather than its leader; creating space for community members to take on leadership roles; and identifying mutually held and complementary goals within and among groups.
Even the most effective engagement strategies can lose their impact over time without a mechanism for ongoing collaboration and clear action steps for participants. One of the great challenges of this work is to maintain focus and momentum for the long term, which requires all participants to feel they are working together on a meaningful project, towards a specific goal. Moreover, it requires explicit attention to managing turnover and transition, ensuring that changing stakeholders are well-informed and clearly included in ongoing work.
To truly make progress, states must utilize available data to determine where to focus and how to assess the effectiveness of their strategies. While each state has different data sources available and a different set of data limitations, data are instrumental in driving progress towards gap closure.
The unique economic, political, and social landscapes of a state play a role in the data that is needed—and available—to equip decision makers with information that can advance state efforts to close attainment gaps. In many cases, this calls for states to broaden their data collection and analysis efforts, including utilizing institution and system data and expanding qualitative data collection efforts, to meet the unique needs of their state. This can be particularly true for addressing data limitations states face in accessing data on smaller populations and/or those populations that are often classified as two or more races.
The gaps postsecondary attainment data bring to light can sometimes appear insurmountable in their magnitude, which can act as a barrier to progress. By grounding more abstract figures in key data points with audience relevance and highlighting opportunities for incremental and achievable progress, data can be used as an effective starting point for conversations and engagement.
Disaggregated data are a crucial tool in equity-focused decision making. To understand the impact of policies and other state-level strategies on target populations, outcomes data must be collected, disaggregated, and routinely analyzed to equip decision makers with the information they need to understand the effectiveness—and potential differential impacts—of their efforts over time.
Ultimately community-building and data should work together, facilitated by process, to contribute to the development of state-level strategies for closing attainment gaps. While no state has yet cracked the code and eliminated all of its gaps, the strategies outlined below offer a place to begin.
Attainment goals, and specific targets for closing gaps within them, can serve as a powerful tool for building a common agenda within a state. With shared goals, the case can be made to embed cross-sector collaboration through sustainable platforms, to agree upon metrics to track and evaluate progress, and to strategically align state resources to these goals. This resource alignment—whether targeting state aid, institutional funding, or braiding multiple funding sources—is particularly important in moving from plan to action.
States serve many functions in the delivery of higher education, and one of the most important is the coordination of interinstitutional efforts. Beyond the scope of any single institution or even any one postsecondary sector, states are uniquely situated to incentivize collaboration and to promote shared investment. They can leverage this role to support different populations in a range of ways, from facilitating institutions’ adoption of stackable credentials and culturally competent pedagogy to adopting streamlined transfer and prior learning assessment policies.
States are also well positioned to lead broad outreach efforts. They can take the lead in sharing the returns to state and local economies of a well-educated workforce, articulating the detrimental impacts of equity gaps, and promoting a more inclusive definition of the concept of “college,” incorporating the many postsecondary pathways available through Career and Technical Education (CTE), apprenticeships, and more to articulate the value of a variety of higher education experiences.