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DesignForScale: It Takes All Kinds of Policies to Scale Structured Pathways

This post first appeared on Completion by Design's blog on November 20, 2014. Completion by Design is a five-year Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation signature initiative that works with community colleges to significantly increase completion and graduation rates for low-income students under 26.

In my travels around the country, I often hear about the importance of policy. By policy, however, most of the time people are referring to “Big P” policy—laws on the books that mandate action in one direction, or appropriations that direct public funding. Legislative mandates, such as Connecticut’s Public Act 12-40 in 2012 or Ohio’s new performance-based funding model, get significant attention. This comes as no surprise as laws that constrain institutional behavior and split the appropriations pie certainly warrant attention.

There is considerably less interest in “Little p” policy.  I can safely say that I rarely hear a word about administrative rules and regulations, or board or system policies, despite their importance in effectively- and efficiently-run systems. And I almost never hear about systems and capacity building in the context of conversations about policy despite the important role such supports play in both catalyzing and sustaining institutional transformation. “Little p” policy supports include technical assistance for institutional research, state- and regional-level learning forums, dissemination of evidence-based best practices, and other supports that strengthen college efforts to innovate. Yet, if guided and structured pathways reforms are to move from the colleges now spearheading the reform effort to all of the colleges within systems and states, we need to pay more attention and better understand how these different types of policies fit together to accelerate the design, implementation, and scale of reforms.

Scaled pathways reform will require skillful use of both “Big P” and “Little p” policies. Each of the different types of policy has a critical role to play. Legislative mandates, no matter how dramatic and far reaching, cannot scale pathways reforms. Institutions are skilled at resisting unwelcome mandates and have historically been creative in meeting the letter of such laws while continuing their preferred practices. Administrative rules and regulations by themselves are usually not enough to compel colleges to drop bad practices and adopt good ones. And while capacity building policy supports may provide language for the technical assistance and professional development supports that are needed to implement pathways reforms, the effective and efficient delivery of such supports to colleges is quite a different thing. There is no single policy play. And the right mix of policies will not just happen. Careful attention and thought needs to go into how the different policies are constructed and how they cohere to accelerate the scale of pathways reform. State policy makers must take an approach we call DesignForScale.

There are few examples, however of how these policies fit together to support the acceleration and scale of structured pathways. To address this, the Jobs for the Future Postsecondary State Policy team is introducing our DesignForScale Series to encourage the field to be more attentive to and strategic about the mix of policies and other state-level activities that scale successful reforms across all of a states’ community colleges. The series provides a diverse set of examples from leveraging legislation, to capacity building and professional development support, to assessment of state and institutional polices. We offer these examples as starting points in a robust dialog we hope to have with states seeking to scale reforms. We welcome other stories you can tell of innovative efforts to scale structured pathways, and examples of concerted state-level efforts to DesignForScale.