Welcome to my ramblings on higher education…

As an undergraduate student, one day I had the realization that one could “be in college” as a job. You could pursue a career in higher education and get to be on campus every day. A couple decades later, I’ve had the opportunity to work on five different college campuses and cannot imagine a more fulfilling set of experiences.

College can be not just life-changing, it can be family and generational changing. I feel extraordinarily fortunate for this to be my world.

Subvert U.

Many U.S. states are facing declining secondary school enrollment or are projecting shortfalls in the number of residents holding postsecondary credentials compared to future employer needs and workforce demands. These forecasted challenges are magnified as an increasing share of careers require postsecondary credentials or degrees (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2013). Many states and organizations have established goals to mitigate these looming issues. The Lumina Foundation (2018) reports that more than forty-one states have established future postsecondary attainment goals. And since 1979, more than thirty states have also implemented some type of performance-based funding for public higher education that that is intended to increase degree attainment among other objectives (Umbricht, Fernandez & Ortagus, 2017). These concepts and policies have migrated across state lines and across the country, but have demonstrated limited impact on changing attainment outcomes (Gandara, Rippner & Ness, 2017; Rippner, 2016).

Reverse transfer is one strategy in which states and nonprofit organizations have invested to address the educational attainment potential of the approximately twenty percent of U.S. adults aged twenty-five or older who have earned some college credit, but not earned a degree or credential (United States Census, 2016). Reverse transfer allows individuals who have enrolled at a four-year institution and have previously completed college coursework or complete credit at the four-year institution to transfer the credit to a two-year college in order to be awarded an associate degree while continuing to pursue a baccalaureate degree. The awarding of these degrees is considered a momentum point which can help to retain students and motivate them toward continuing their enrollment toward a baccalaureate degree. The process also allows the individual to immediately benefit from the additional earning potential of a postsecondary credential. This advantage can be particularly beneficial in retaining students who may work part-time or full-time while enrolled. Likewise, this strategy has been a key approach in addressing inequities in employment opportunities for historically underserved communities as these groups have disproportionately lower educational attainment levels than their peers (Engle & Tinto, 2008).

Despite the promise of reverse transfer to address educational, economic, and social attainment gaps, states and institutions have found implementing these efforts challenging (Taylor et al., 2017). In states in which performance-based funding has been implemented, community colleges and universities may find themselves contending for allocation of the same resources which has created a more competitive educational environment. In other contexts, student interest in reverse transfer has been difficult to generate, with students expressing suspicion or skepticism of community colleges conferring a degree the student did not previously declare. Some states have found that, once conferred an associate’s degree, students left the four-year institution to go directly into the workforce. Further, multiple institutions have struggled to overcome concerns regarding the sharing of student data and data privacy (Taylor et al., 2017).

Institutions themselves have also sought ways to use these new structures to their advantage, particularly in states with performance-based funding models. Institutions have found ways to benefit from double-counting or triple-counting students based on the conferral of simultaneous credentials and degrees to student, resulting in augmented funding. This approach allows institutions to maximize funding awarded for a single student, but does nothing to change overall attainment outcomes.

While efforts to increase educational attainment may be in the best interest of individuals, institutions and states, policies enacted without effective input and consultation have created a number of unintended consequences across the nation (Umbricht, Fernandez & Ortagus, 2017). Whether subversion is intentional, in order to maximize benefit to an institution as can occur in performance-based funding environments or accidental, these outcomes demonstrate the impact of “street level bureaucrats” and others undermining the intention of policies and practices (Lipsky, 2010). Ultimately, more inclusive and comprehensive engagement at the onset of educational policy-making could lead to better outcomes and attainment for all.


Carnevale, A. P., Smith, N., & Strohl, J. (2013). Recovery: Job growth and education requirements through 2020. Washington, DC: Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved from https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Recovery2020.FR_.Web_.pdf

Engle, J., & Tinto, V. (2008). Moving beyond access: College success for low-income, first-generation students. Washington, DC: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED504448.pdf

Gandara, D., Rippner, J., & Ness, E. (2017). Exploring the ‘How’ in Policy Diffusion: National Intermediary Organizations’ Roles in Facilitating the Spread of Performance-Based Funding Policies in the States. The Journal of Higher Education, 88(5), 701-725.

Lipsky, M. (2010). Street-Level bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the individual in public services.  Russel Sage, New York.

Rippner, J. A. (2016).  The American policy landscape.  New York: Routledge.

Taylor, J., Kauppila, S. A., Cortez-Lopez, E., Soler, M. C., Bishop, C., Meza, E., McCambly, H., & Bragg, D. D. (2017, May). The implementation and outcomes of Credit When It’s Due (CWID) in 15 states. Seattle, WA: Community College Research Initiatives, University of Washington. Retrieved from http://ccri.uw.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Comprehensive-RPT-7.17.17.pdf

Umbricht, M., Fernandez, F., & Ortagus, J. (2017). An Examination of the (Un)Intended Consequences of Performance Funding in Higher Education. Educational Policy, 31(5), 643-673.

United States Census. (2016). American Community Survey. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs/data/custom-tables.html

All Roads Lead to ?

While discussing the gap in educational data systems in California one evening, a friend and K-12 colleague pointed out that after high school, students arrive at one of just a few destinations – postsecondary education, the workforce, the military, or the justice system. I had never considered high school outcomes in such stark terms, but I could not disagree on the surface with that synopsis. Her point in this illustration was that with just a few sets of data that was flowing bi-directionally each system could be learning a lot more about how and why students arrive at any of those destinations and, more importantly what and where opportunities existed along the road to these outcomes. It seemed like a very clear and compelling argument for better coordination among educational and other systems.

There seems to be little disagreement that a lack of alignment across the educational and career continuum contributes to gaps in policy and more importantly real impacts on students and communities. The identification of these gaps, particularly between K-12 and postsecondary education, have been noted for several decades (Rippner, 2017). While students and families may have clear educational, career and familial aspirations, the lack of coordination and alignment has real and lasting impacts on the educational and subsequent career attainment of individuals (Kirst & Venezia, 2004; Venezia, Kirst, & Antonio, 2003).

The establishment of state or regional Pre-Kindergarten through college (P-20) entities are councils are not a new concept. They originate from a need to bridge America’s historic emphasis on decentralized and fragmented education systems. In some states, they operate as statewide entities, with varying degrees of membership, authority and accountability (Rittner, 2016). These entities are also often subject to changes in state leadership and changes in state leadership priorities. But such efforts do not have to be statewide or attempt to address every gap in the educational continuum. Success can be found, and perhaps be more meaningful at a smaller, regional level.

Consider California’s Cal-SOAP consortia. The California Student Opportunity and Access Program (better known as Cal-SOAP) was created through legislation in 1978, facilitating P-20 consortia focused on the improving communication regarding financial aid opportunities in communities with historically lower postsecondary participation. Currently, fifteen consortia operate across the state, facilitating regional collaboration to expand knowledge of and access to financial aid for postsecondary education. Gurantz (2018) demonstrated how the coordinated marketing and advertisement by Cal-SOAP of hands-on assistance in completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), increased submission of FAFSA by low income students. These events were largely coordinated through Cal-SOAP through a regional, P20 collaboration to improve access to financial aid.

Cal-SOAP consortia demonstrate the direct benefit of P-20 forums to address alignment across educational systems. In the case of Cal-SOAP, these regional entities that receive some state funding through the California Student Aid Commission, depend on the in-kind investment of local school districts, community colleges, public and private colleges and educational outreach programs. In return, the partners are able to address and mitigate gaps in policy, information and coordination that may impact students and families in their region that they likely could not address alone. And, while they have three-decade track record of convening and catalyzing educational partners in addressing financial aid for low income students and families, Cal-SOAP consortia have also encountered the same challenges that befall their comparable statewide efforts in other states. State budgets, changing statewide leadership priorities and commitment level of local partners have impacted the program with at least two regional consortia folding.

In a state as large and populous as California, perhaps a single, P-20 statewide structure is not the answer. After all, the variance of existing educational attainment levels, regional economies and demographics is greater within the state’s borders than between other states. Perhaps doubling-down and investing in regional P-20 (and beyond) collaboration like Cal-SOAP is the answer to keeping more all students and families on the road to a successful future.


Gurantz, O. (2018). A Little Can Go a Long Way: The Impact of Advertising Services on Program Take-Up. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 40(3), 382-398.

Kirst, M. & Venezia, A. (2004). From high school to college: Improving opportunities for success in post-secondary education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rippner, J. A. (2016).  The American policy landscape.  New York: Routledge.

Rippner, J. A. (2017). State P-20 Councils and Collaboration Between K-12 and Higher Education. Educational Policy, 31(1), 3-38.

Venezia, A., Kirst, M., & Antonio, A. (2003). Betraying the college dream: How disconnected K-12 and post-secondary education systems undermine student aspirations. Palo Alto, CA: The Bridge Project, Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research.

To Lead or To Follow?

Across the United States, millions of adults have completed some postsecondary coursework, but not earned a degree or credential. A 2016 U.S. Census report (Ryan & Bauman, 2016) estimated that 17.4 percent of the working-age population of 25 to 54 years of age possessed some college credit but had not attained a postsecondary degree. Similarly, the American Community Survey (United States Census, 2016) found that 20.9 percent of the U.S. population over age 25 reported this situation. Individuals in these circumstances do not benefit from the economic and earning power of a postsecondary degree, but often retain student loan indebtedness, dealing two detriments to their economic and social mobility.

Many U.S. states are facing declining secondary school enrollment or are projecting shortfalls in the number of residents holding postsecondary credentials compared to future employer needs and workforce demands. These forecasted challenges are magnified as an increasing share of careers require postsecondary credentials or degrees (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2013). For California, the future looks differently. While the state will see fairly consistent numbers of high school enrollment and graduates into the next decade, the workforce demand for individuals with a postsecondary degree will exceed the population possessing these credentials (Jackson & Johnson, 2018).

Many states and organizations have established goals to mitigate these looming issues. The Lumina Foundation (2018) reports that 41 states have established future postsecondary attainment goals. In light of these issues, states and educational institutions have explored and undertaken new strategies to recruit or re-engage adult learners or individuals with some college credits completed. California is among the nine remaining states without such postsecondary attainment goals.

Acknowledging this national policy issue, educational researcher Jennifer Rippner (2016) highlights the emerging issue of college completion in the United States. While this topic has emerged organically as many state governments examined education spending during and after the Great Recession, it also neatly illustrates the construct of “policy diffusion” with such state and institutional goal-setting spilling across state lines, galvanized by philanthropic entities with a focus on educational, workforce and economic equity.

Whether California chooses to look inwardly to establish a postsecondary educational attainment goal itself or joins with other states in this national movement, student and family expectations for college attendance and completion are changing. So the question becomes, will California lead the change by setting a statewide educational attainment goal, or simply follow the evolving expectations of California students and families?


Ryan, C. L., & Bauman, K. (2016). Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/demo/p20-578.pdf.  

United States Census. (2016). American Community Survey. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs/data/custom-tables.html.

Carnevale, A. P., Smith, N., & Strohl, J. (2013). Recovery: Job growth and education requirements through 2020. Washington, DC: Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved from https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Recovery2020.FR_.Web_.pdf.

Jackson, J., & Johnson, H. (2018). California’s Future: Higher Education. Retrieved from the Public Policy Institute of California website: http://www.ppic.org/wp-content/uploads/r-118jjr.pdf.

Lumina Foundation. (2018). A Stronger Nation: Learning beyond high school builds American talent. Retrieved from http://strongernation.luminafoundation.org/report/2018/.

Rippner, J. A. (2016).  The American policy landscape.  New York: Routledge.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

I have always been particularly fond of this colloquial saying. I’m not quite sure when my affinity for it emerged, but particularly in my professional career, I have found it to be a useful internal mantra for affecting change in an organization. It feels especially appropriate in the context of educational organizations and particularly applicable to higher education. And while I acknowledge that educational policy development and change sometimes appear to be moving at a glacial pace, it is often for practical and pragmatic reasons.

Higher education policy seems to be a topic about which anyone who attended college feels they must be an expert. The ever-present opening statement, “when I was in college…” can be followed by any number of ill-informed or anecdotal statements about which the speaker believes policy should be based. Further, while shared governance is an essential and defining quality of higher education, it can also appear to stymie opportunity and be used as a tactic of obstinance.

Despite these challenges, I have long felt that incremental change and continuous improvement are effective policy and change approaches in higher education. Rippner (2016) describes a number of policy theories in education including incrementalism, multiple streams, punctuated equilibrium, and advocacy coalition framework and policy diffusion. While there are elements of each of these theories I can appreciate and have witnessed in my own work with higher education policy, I find alignment with incrementalism. Incrementalism proposes that policy change builds over the course of time. It is not abrupt change and may be criticized as taking a path of least resistance. However, incrementalism can represent a thoughtful and inclusive approach to policy development and change.

As McDonnell and Weatherford (2013) highlight, policy making is often neither linear nor predictable. As such, an incremental approach may often allow for greater agility within an organization by responding to new or emerging information or outcomes. It also may preclude educational organizations to overcommitting to a policy element before sufficient research, communication or engagement occurs.

While the public good of primary and secondary education has long been established, perspectives on the public good of higher education have changed over time (Nixon, 2010). Like primary and secondary education, higher education represents a complex multi-year investment for students, families and governments. This multi-year context supports the need for incremental change as the educational process itself is incremental, building on learning that occurs in earlier years or earlier classes. For this reason, students and learning benefit from continuity, including continuity in policy.

Incrementalism also presents a strong case for robust policy evaluation. An organization that commits to continuous improvement stemming from policy evaluation can continue to build and refine a policy and policy implementation to make use of evaluation outcomes and recommendations. They can be adaptive and responsive, benefiting from ongoing evaluation and feedback.

For decades, the California State University (CSU) supported a policy which afforded undergraduate students the ability to benefit from access to courses offered by all campuses. Under the intrasystem concurrent enrollment policy, a student enrolled at one CSU campus to enroll in one course at another CSU campus for no additional tuition fees. Originally crafted at a time when all classes were face-to-face, the policy was typically only utilized by students in regions of the state with multiple CSU campuses. With the advent of online course modalities, the policy has been incrementally adjusted and updated to afford statewide opportunities, ensure clearer course articulation and reciprocity and been brought to the foreground of student enrollment opportunities.  This multi-year incremental approach to policy change provided continuity to students and benefited from evaluation of existing policy requirements and the adaptability afforded by technology.

As Rippner (2016) notes, incrementalism is a practical approach to policy-making in education. It represents common-sense approaches that can build trust and transparency within and around an educational organization. Incrementalism may not always account for complexity and sometimes it may be superseded by a clarion call for immediate change, but it can frequently be the way for good and effective policy to make it to the finish line.


McDonnell, L. M., & Weatherford, M. S. (2013). Evidence use and the common core state standards movement: from problem definition to policy adoption. American Journal of Education, 120, 1–25.

Nixon, J. (2010). Higher Education and the Public Good: Imagining the University. London: Continuum

Rippner, J. A. (2016).  The American policy landscape.  New York: Routledge.

The increasing influence of social media in higher education policy

In the early days of Twitter, I sat in a academic meeting beside the chair of a university’s English department. The topic was a contentious one and the room was filled with a fair amount of disdain between faculty and administrators. I looked to my immediate right to see the chairperson live tweeting the (presumably closed) discussion occurring in the meeting. Presumably, other English faculty were hanging on every 160 characters being shared. While I found the experience a bit odd, it was an early indicator of the impending role (or attempted role) of social media in higher education, and particularly higher education policy.

Fast forward nearly a decade and all sorts of universities’ trials and tribulations have played out on social media. Institutions develop complex strategies to use Twitter and other social platforms for advocacy, marketing and public relations clean-up. More recently, a number of presidents have become larger than life personas largely through their social media presence.

So what how can an institution best use Twitter and other platforms to benefit the university? Conceptually, social media has provided some democratization to information. Not relying on traditional media modalities and networks allows a more direct message to the public via social media. But it requires nimbleness and the ability to respond quickly — and I wouldn’t frequently describe higher education as nimble.

While live-tweeting a meeting may not be the most riveting way to engage more people in higher education policy, surely institutions can improve their hashtag game.

Narratives from the Admissions “Game”

Having worked in college and university admissions for most of my professional career, friends, family, family friends and friends of friends often reach out for counsel on the admission process. I am often at a loss for words. It’s difficult to describe the process and particularly the outcomes these days. And the recent athletics-admissions scandal also left me befuddled and angry.

My post-admissions process talk often goes something like this…I certainly can appreciate the disappointment and angst your daughter is feeling. I have heard from several other friends about their children’s experiences and outcomes recently as well and have provided some feedback when I can. Let me first also acknowledge the foreign feeling of the college and university admissions process. I think that is true for all parents, but particularly acute for those who did not experience the US higher education system or for those who have do not have experience with colleges and universities at all. Even for those that did, our experience 25 years ago or more was quite different than our children are experiencing. In today’s admission process, most students receive a number of “denied” responses. This outcome is not a reflection on the student themselves, their ability, their intellect or their motivation; it is a reflection of the sheer number of students applying to universities today.

My narrative is accurate, but it frustrates me. Actually, it angers me. “Success” in admission to college has become narrowly defined as being admitted to elite private universities or highly selective public “marquee” institutions. And those universities have enormous resource. Meanwhile, the workhorses of American higher education, public comprehensive colleges and universities, get maligned, even though many of them better serve first generation students, low income students and students of color.

As recently articulated in The Atlantic, elite college admissions policies were designed to promulgate the status quo. Even when they “opened up” to a broader range of applicants, admissions policies still favored white students, and particularly wealthy white students. Flagship public universities don’t do much better. They’ve institutionalized an admission policy and process that advantages students with resources (time and money) to be more “involved,” “well rounded,” employ tutors and engage in test preparation.

Changing admission policies at elite colleges and universities is not a quick endeavor. It will take a groundswell of pushback from alumni and constituents inside and outside the institutions to even be a catalyst for change. And, often those same people benefit from the existing policies.

In the meantime, the workhorses of American higher education are rolling along, changing the life trajectories of thousands of students. Perhaps instead of the following the paparazzi and the spectacle of the elite college admissions scandal or spending more time on those marquee university names, we should turn our attention (and our resources) to the real actors in education, our public comprehensions colleges and universities.

More Readings

New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/18/upshot/some-colleges-have-more-students-from-the-top-1-percent-than-the-bottom-60.html

NPR: https://www.npr.org/2019/03/29/706870203/why-harvard-yale-and-stanford-may-not-be-the-best-colleges