We Need a Federal-State Partnership That Fosters Student Success

Published may. 06, 2019

College affordability is a hot topic on the 2020 presidential campaign trail, with several Democrats calling for “free” or “debt free” college. But cost isn’t the only barrier to postsecondary success. To improve college completion rates, federal and state agencies should also set policies that promote dramatic changes in the way postsecondary education is designed and delivered to students.

JFF fully supports efforts to make college more affordable, but we also urge policymakers to promote the implementation of systemic student success strategies.

It’s true that many people are shut out of our nation’s higher education system because college costs are too high. It’s also true that those who do complete college often find themselves burdened with staggering amounts of debt. But even when cost isn’t part of the equation, college success can be difficult to achieve. Many students are still struggling to complete degrees even though they have been able to take advantage of tuition-free programs. This is particularly true of adults and people from underserved populations.   

JFF fully supports efforts to make college more affordable, but we also urge policymakers to promote the implementation of systemic student success strategies that help students persist and complete their credentials or degrees and go on to succeed in the labor market. 

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There are many structural barriers and inefficiencies that prevent students from completing college. They include lack of access to good information on student outcomes, poorly designed pathways to credentials, stringent scheduling models, inequitable college readiness opportunities, ineffective ways of measuring student learning, and a lack of alignment with the skill needs of local and regional industries. Any of those challenges can take students off track and make it difficult for them to complete their postsecondary educations, even if they pay little or no tuition.

If we want to truly move the needle on college success, JFF believes that we should dramatically change the way postsecondary education is designed and delivered to students, so that it is more relevant, coherent, adaptive, and accelerated wherever possible.

Early Examples Where Change Is Working

We are fortunate to have examples of the types of changes we have in mind because colleges across the country have embraced strategies that improve student success and system relevance. 

Take Lorain County Community College (LCCC) in Elyria, Ohio, where partnerships made possible by policy-driven interventions enabled the school to rapidly deploy an innovative earn-and-learn program called TRAIN Ohio in the fall of 2016. 

Through an arrangement that blends school and work, TRAIN Ohio participants engage in paid work-based learning at sponsor companies three days per week and take full course loads while attending classes two days per week. LCCC has also developed an effective system of pathway supports through an initiative it calls ASAP (the Accelerated Study in Associate Program), which provides students with wraparound supports, including tuition assistance, academic and career advising services, and financial assistance to cover transportation and textbook costs. 

While programs such as these have resulted in improved student outcomes at LCCC and other schools, we still face a problem of scale and capacity across the broader postsecondary system.

LCCC had the capacity to pursue innovative strategies in part because it was a recipient of a federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant. TAACCCT grants seeded innovative and evidence-based strategies for improving student outcomes and increasing the alignment between postsecondary curricula and workforce needs in more than 700 community colleges nationwide. 

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Federal policy should build upon lessons learned through TAACCCT and other evidence-based programs to help states and state college systems implement proven strategies like the ones in place at LCCC on a large scale. And the pending reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act (HEA) provides an opportunity to do just that—establish federal-state partnerships that focus on both college affordability and the scaling of postsecondary student success strategies. 

Embedding Student Success and Workforce Relevance Strategies into Federal-State Partnerships

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Ideally, a federal-state partnership on student success and relevance would create incentives for changes in the design and delivery of postsecondary education and training across states. Any partnership should encourage states to pursue activities that would do the following:

  • Improve consumer information on postsecondary outcomes
  • Support financial stability and navigational supports for students
  • Ensure that there are efficient pathways and alignment across K-12 school systems, adult education, postsecondary institutions, and the workforce
  • Support the expansion of education and training in in-demand industry sectors and occupations
  • Design and expand guided and career pathway programs
  • Encourage work-based learning opportunities, including apprenticeships

For more information on JFF’s full list of ideas for HEA reauthorization, read our brief “Building Pathways to Credentials, Careers, and Economic Mobility: Transforming the Higher Education Act for Today’s Students and Economy.”