When state data systems are built to enable access to education and workforce data, state leaders will be able to use data to design, implement, continuously improve, and scale up promising practices. This guest blog post is from Eleanor Eckerson Peters, Director of Research and Policy at the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP). On October 17, 2023, IHEP co-hosted a virtual event with Results for America which brought together state and national leaders to discuss stories about postsecondary success implementation from a state-level perspective. Eleanor shares insights from the webinar and highlights two promising state postsecondary success programs that are grounded in data.
Earlier this month, IHEP joined Results for America to highlight promising postsecondary student success models in Colorado and Massachusetts. The webinar, “State Lessons for Implementing Evidence-Based Postsecondary Success Programs,” explored two recent case studies about data and evidence-based programs that are helping more students complete college.
Both case studies underscore the importance of using evidence to design and implement promising practices, devoting the time and resources to building an evidence base during implementation and delivery, then drawing on that evidence base to continuously improve programs and scale up effective strategies.
In Massachusetts, the state-funded Supporting Urgent Community College Equity Through Student Services (SUCCESS) program provides community college students with wraparound services including tutoring, academic advising, financial aid counseling, and career guidance. According to a national independent evaluation, receiving these services leads to positive, statistically significant increases in retention and degree completion.
My fellow panelist John Lane of State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) discussed the importance of finding the right combination of solutions and aligning that combination to various campuses and conditions. “We’ve seen this kind of adaptation across the country [in] Montana, Ohio, West Virginia, New Jersey…they’re finding that balance between what we know that works and how that intersects with opportunities that are the right fit for the current circumstances.”
In Colorado, a two-pronged implementation of the Finish What You Started program is testing different approaches for re-engaging learners to finish their degrees. The program supports students who stopped out of postsecondary education to return and complete a degree. In addition to financial aid, it includes wraparound support services that have proved successful in other programs and around the country.
The panel also discussed the federal government’s role in ensuring resources are being used effectively in all states and contexts and helping to scale effective data and evidence-based models already in place.
Another fellow panelist Kent Phillippe of the American Association of Community Colleges identified one tool that could help at the federal level. “From our perspective, a national student unit record system would be a big plus in understanding student outcomes, as well as collecting information on noncredit activities,” Phillippe said.
IHEP, Results for America, SHEEO, and the American Association of Community Colleges are just a few of the more than 150 organizations that support the College Transparency Act, a legislative solution that would better connect existing federal postsecondary data by creating a secure, privacy-protected student-level data network within the National Center for Education Statistics. The network would make it easier for students, institutions, and policymakers to access timely and accurate information about metrics including enrollment, costs, completion rates, and post-graduation earnings.
Yet another example of both investing in and building this evidence base is the federal Postsecondary Student Success Grant program. At IHEP, we’re champions of this program that is intended to equitably improve postsecondary student outcomes by leveraging data and implementing scaling and rigorously evaluating evidence-based activities to support data driven decisions and actions. Postsecondary Student Success Grants are helping institutions scale their evidence-based completion efforts and include an evaluative component akin to those included in the Massachusetts SUCCESS and Colorado Finish What You Started programs.
A third strategy that we can employ at the federal level to support this work is funding investments in evidence-based approaches to improving student outcomes. We must commit to building a strong evidence base about what works, for whom, and under what circumstances.
IHEP partnered with Results for America to develop a roadmap for how the US Department of Education can maximize the authority granted to the Secretary of Education to set aside up to 0.5 percent of funding from certain Higher Education Act programs for rigorous and independent evaluation and data analysis. By fully utilizing this authority, the department can build an evidence base on how interventions can be improved to best support postsecondary success for all students, regardless of race, background, or circumstance.
A data and evidence-informed approach to supporting student success is helping states shape programs that boost degree completion. Rigorous evaluation and timely data aid in the development and ongoing improvement of these interventions, including in Colorado and Massachusetts. These are models more states can emulate, and with additional federal action and support, strengthen and scale.