Sharon Morrissey: Making Good Policy Work

What is good policy and what makes it work? Since 2010, I have collaborated with policy makers and stakeholders in two state community college systems to develop system-level policies and implement reform initiatives designed to improve student success outcomes. As a member of Jobs for the Future’s Policy Leadership Trust, I engage with nationwide experts in conversations about this critical subject. The more I work on system and state-level policy, the more I learn about its key components.

Why do we even need good policy? Quite simply, it helps drive reforms necessary to improve student success outcomes at community colleges. For a state system like the Virginia Community College System (VCCS), good policy begins with a strategic plan linked to an attainable goal. For us, that goal is to triple the number of credentials our students earn by the year 2021, which aligns with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia’s (SCHEV) goal to increase Virginia’s postsecondary attainment rate from 51 percent to 71 percent by the year 2030.

As an overarching strategy to guide our work in support of these attainment goals, the VCCS has adopted Guided Pathways, a research-based strategy that includes multiple policy levers intended to help students throughout their entire education path: clarifying their goals (whether career or transfer), getting and staying on the path to completion, and either entering the workforce or seamlessly transferring to a senior institution.

Good policy is strategic, evidence-based, and integrated. The Guided Pathways approach, which emerged from a decade of research on student success outcomes at community colleges, provides a conceptual framework for states and colleges to design or redesign workflow processes to streamline students’ pathways to completion. Some of the policy levers our system and colleges have adopted to support Guided Pathways include meta majors, onboarding linked with career and labor market data, structured programs of study, well-defined math pathways to support seamless transfer or career readiness, contextualized and accelerated remediation, multiple measures for placement, advising process redesign, and structured four-year program maps for seamless transfer. Collectively, these policy levers align in an integrated framework designed to guide students in the onboarding process, support their progress in academic programs, and keep them on track to completion.

While Guided Pathways is powerful as an overarching approach to improved student success outcomes, it is not a one-size-fits-all policy solution. The development of good policy must be driven by best practices, supported by research, engage multiple stakeholders, and fit into a state’s governance context, all of which means that developing good policy takes time. In Virginia, we have spent three years engaging college leaders, faculty members, and state board members in the research and deliberation processes necessary to develop system-level policy for implementation across all 23 colleges. We are also working with K-12 and university partners to create cross-sector student success policy levers to support college readiness, dual enrollment, and seamless transfer. Scaling a state-level policy agenda to support student success requires time and resources to build a knowledge base, create a supportive culture and develop a policy strategy. The approach will be different in every state and college, as illustrated by the Completion by Design Building Guided Pathways Toolkit.

What makes good policy work? As effective as it is, Guided Pathways is not a silver bullet. The old adage that “culture eats strategy for lunch” is appropriate in this context. The best strategies, policies and intentions for improving student outcomes are ineffective without culture change at the campus level. In and of itself, policy does not make a difference without strong leadership and engaged faculty.

In Virginia, we launched Guided Pathways with a series of student success leadership institutes designed to engage college presidents and leadership teams in deep learning experiences. At the conclusion of the institutes, each college submitted a five-year student success action plan. Collectively, those plans provided the foundation for an over-arching system-wide student success plan called the Virginia Integrated Program for Planning and Advising for Students (VIP-PASS), designed to accomplish holistic transformation of the full student experience by integrating technology solutions with a Guided Pathways approach.

Clear communication is also vital to making good policy work. Virginia’s Student Success Center, which is part of a national network supported by Jobs for the Future, is helping colleges learn about, implement and scale best practices for student success. Through the Center’s work, we created a glossary of student success best practices to develop a common understanding of complex concepts.  In addition, we organized multiple system-level policy levers using the loss/momentum framework, introduced by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help colleges better understand students’ pathways through college. Our Student Success Center also created a website called The Resource Center as a tool for VCCS faculty and staff to share information, increase understanding, and promote collaboration in support of student success.

Good policy can be a catalyst for change when it is evidence-based, developed through stakeholder engagement, and framed within a larger student success strategy. For the VCCS, the Guided Pathways approach is our overarching strategy that guides policy development and funding decisions. Through Guided Pathways, we are fundamentally redesigning our system’s capacity and infrastructure to better serve all students.

Dr. Sharon Morrissey is Vice Chancellor, Academic Services & Research, for the Virginia Community College System.

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