Why Postsecondary Policy Matters This Election Season

Published oct. 18, 2018

With less than a month until gubernatorial and state legislative elections, the economy remains a top political issue. Candidates have attempted to explain how they’ll address this matter, with many platforms built on the need for a skilled workforce.

We at JFF have been pleased to see many candidates including a focus on how postsecondary education can help achieve this goal—and have put forward strategies like college promise and dual enrollment. After the dust settles on election night, there will be significant work ahead for the newly elected officials to turn campaign promises into policy realities that can make a real difference for students.

Pay Attention to Community College Interest

With 39 races for governor and the potential to flip nearly 20 state legislative chambers’ controlling party, there’s a lot at stake. What candidates are saying on the campaign trail will reverberate in the passage of bills and budgets for years to come. We assert that policy should be informed by what works for communities and in the classroom. 

Newly elected governors and state legislators should look first to field practitioners to establish and implement sound policy on education and workforce issues. At JFF, the Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success helps to elevate community college leaders’ perspectives in policy discussions.


During the summer meeting of JFF’s Postsecondary State Network, several Trust members shared with fellow practitioners from 16 states how they are wrestling with two particular campaign issues regarding postsecondary success—college promise and dual enrollment. 

How Will You Tackle College Promise? 

A top concern for Trust members is college promise—the concept of making college affordable by allowing students to attend the first two years for free. Many candidates are pitching free college as a vehicle for boosting postsecondary enrollment and attracting or retaining individuals and families in their states and districts. Despite the high expectations these programs have produced, the limited impact on community college students had Trust members questioning whether “free” college is a promise worth making.
Some emphasized that policymakers must be transparent about the full cost of attending college. Others expressed the need to move away from calling promise programs “free” because students must bear other large costs—like housing, food, and transportation expenses.
Trust members grappled with the implications for institutions—specifically, whether state funding for promise scholarships would be better spent on curtailing the cost of tuition. They also worried that the influx of promise students might overwhelm campus staff who provide advising and student services. Members suggested that states with promise programs could provide colleges with funding to hire more advisers and boost student services.
Finally, for some Trust members, the notion of “free college” is synonymous with “low value,” a message that institutions do not want to send to students and families. Members championed an update to the language and communications around promise programs. Changing the narrative would allow for clarity on both the quality and financial ramifications of promise programs.
We urge policymakers to listen closely to practitioners when designing new college promise programs to ensure the programs deliver on their central commitment.

Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success

Meet the Trust!

How Will You Address Dual Enrollment Challenges?

Trust members raised similar concerns about dual enrollment. These are programs that enable high school students to simultaneously gain high school and college credits, which improves access to postsecondary options.

With dual enrollment expanding across the country, many challenges remain. Problem areas include disadvantaged students’ access to programs, participant outcomes, availability, and costs of programs. Other worries are the transfer of credits across institutions and how to provide students with incentives to complete a credential of value through community college pathways—with seamless transfer across multiple postsecondary institutions.

Other Trust members raised equity concerns, asserting that many dual enrollment programs only benefit high school students who are already likely to pursue a bachelor’s degree. How state policymakers address these issues will be critical to the success of dual enrollment programs and the students that are relying on them for an efficient, affordable pathway to a degree. 

Over the coming school year and legislative season, JFF will work with community college leaders on the Trust to consider the evidence, opportunities, and tradeoffs with promise programs, dual enrollment programs, and other high-profile postsecondary issues. Together, we will put forward thoughtful policy recommendations; the key will be engaging policymakers in the nuances.

Highlights from our recent convening with Policy Leadership Trust members: