A Season for Smarter Postsecondary Policy


This legislative session, state policymakers should focus on growing a skilled workforce that meets employer needs. JFF’s new policy analysis offers a roadmap to help states make college work better—for students and the economy.

Published jan. 27, 2020

In the parlance of Games of Thrones, “Winter is coming” foreshadows pending doom and gloom. But, in the world of state policy, winter marks a time of renewed optimism in solving the challenges of the day.

With state legislatures returning to session at the dawn of this new decade, most governors will deliver a state of the state address to offer their prognostications and declare their priorities and policy solutions. Policy and funding proposals will follow, and lawmakers will debate, vote, and adopt changes.

Growing a skilled workforce ought to be among their top policy priorities. It’s essential for attracting and filling the jobs of the future and expanding economic opportunities to more people residing in cities, suburbs, and rural areas alike.

In the rapidly changing economy, nearly all new jobs will require education and skills beyond high school.

The question is how best to meet this skills challenge and economic imperative. In our new report, Making College Work for Students and the Economy , JFF offers states a policy roadmap for increasing attainment of postsecondary credentials that are valued in the labor market.

We lay out a 15-point postsecondary reform agenda with three key goals: 1) focus on talent development in regional and state economies, 2) make education paths more efficient, and 3) help more people achieve their education and career aspirations.

Because there are no silver bullets to improving college and career success, our policy recommendations are wide ranging. They include: strengthening the alignment of programs and systems to regional labor market demand; expanding work-based learning opportunities, redesigning on-ramps and pathways to college degrees; and making a holistic array of supports more readily available to students to increase their chances at completion and economic advancement.

In our new report, we lift up exemplary approaches to consider and draw attention to common challenges.

Our policy recommendations are grounded in evidence and informed by our longstanding collaboration with community college leaders on the vanguard of change and innovation.

Yet, naming policy prescriptions is not enough. We spent the past year determining the extent to which these policy solutions are taking hold in states. In our new report, we lift up exemplary approaches that states ought to consider and replicate. We also draw attention to common challenges that require the urgent attention of state policymakers.

States that we studied have made strides in important fundamentals, such as adopting policies that broaden access to college and establishing attainment goals and accountability systems. But significant gaps remain. States need to do more to foster a culture of data use and collective action around regional talent needs, bring proven student success practices to scale, and mitigate the financial hardships that limit educational and career opportunity for so many of today’s students.

Closing the Gap

This legislative season, we recommend that these six principles guide the action of state policymakers.

  1. Set clear, ambitious, and equitable policy goals and target investments and interventions to meet these goals. Make equity a primary goal; otherwise policies and programs will reinforce inequities.
  2. Foster an environment of data use, including labor market information, to improve decision-making by learners, families, communities, institutions, and governments.
  3. Instill the importance of inclusive and meaningful partnerships between the business community and education and training systems to ensure learners gain the skills and knowledge they need for work and for career advancement.
  4. Pay close attention to transition points. Reducing friction when students move from one institution to another—or from one learning experience to another—reaps major dividends in saved time and money.
  5. Support and incentivize evidence-based reforms so that institutions and systems can scale what works. Special initiatives and pockets of innovation will not suffice.
  6. Invest sufficient resources in learners, institutions, and regions because policy goals are otherwise unachievable.

No state will thrive if its response to the intertwining challenges of talent development, educational achievement, and economic advancement is tepid or misplaced. It’s time for bold policy action.