Policy is a means to achieve the successful implementation and scale of integrated pathways. To facilitate the policy change process, JFF has identified five policy principles that we recommend that each state consider as it prepares, updates, and expands a detailed policy work plan.
Systems and Culture Change
A primary reason to focus on policy is to create deep and lasting culture change around the value of integrated pathways for low-skilled adult learners. This effort focuses on changing attitudes among college staff and students, policymakers, and other stakeholders so that they see ABE students as valued members of the community college population, capable of earning college-level credentials and deserving of an equitable share of state and federal educational resources.
Policy plays two roles in facilitating culture change: as an active promoter, policy encourages practitioners to embrace integrated pathway models through policy strategies centered on engagement and consensus building. This approach might include creating cross-agency or cross-institution working groups for stakeholders to engage one another and centering professional development on bringing together national experts and individuals new to integrated pathways. State teams cannot expect culture shift to happen “organically” within three years. An active, guided effort is necessary to accelerate the process.
The second role is troubleshooting. The state must avoid or remove policies that constrain the ability of practitioners to be innovative around acceleration strategies. Poorly designed policy—unfunded, contradictory, unclear, top heavy, overregulated, or excessively punitive—has the potential to break down trust and undermine implementation. If institutional staff and faculty feel that state policy efforts are inadequately designed or implemented, they are less likely to support the initiative, even if they support integrated pathways in general.
We suggest that states view scale and sustainability as a core component of policy from the very first day. Scaling and sustainability strategies are not just about numbers and enrollments, states and colleges must also work on breaking down silos for expansion within the college, while also building out integrated pathways across the state.
Sustainability requires not just a long-term plan for funding and for managing assets and resources as a result of braided funding, but also includes the capacity to mobilize those resource well after the grant is over. Sustainability includes a high priority being placed on “shift in reform ownership” in which the key stakeholders exercise responsibility and authority. Planning to increase funding and staff capacity to match the targeted growth in the integrated pathway models is essential. This approach requires deliberate engagement; it is not enough to assume that long-term plans for the state or any work groups include these goals. Nor should state teams wait to think actively about scale and sustainability. Instead, consider scale and sustainability as measures for all policy change, at every step in the implementation process.
Lack of clear communication is a major impediment to policy reform efforts. Without knowing the experiences of local practitioners, state agencies cannot craft effective policies. The same is true for federal agencies as they shape national strategies. All of the partners engaged in the policy efforts must work to ensure that information flows effectively both upward and downward. State teams must engage a range of staff from the colleges on a regular basis around policy changes (both those made and those under consideration). Ways to do this include listening tours, conducting interviews and surveys, or by including college staff on the state policy team.
The definition of state policy is necessarily flexible. In some instances, “policy change” applies to the more traditional definition that policymakers are familiar with, including rule changes (e.g., legislation, regulations, and guidelines), formal agreements tied to outcomes (e.g., MOUs, contracts, state grants), and definitional clarifications that have broad impacts across entire systems. These types of policy are often mandatory, requiring college staff to change behavior, and they are critical to ensuring that ambitious initiatives succeed.
At JFF, we also embrace a wider ranging definition of policy. In this sense, the term “policy change” is more about shifting educational practice through professional development and culture change. This type of policy hinges on building buy-in among key constituents. It also requires that system and institutional staff collaborate to ensure that recommended changes are enacted.
The contrast between these two types of policy is captured in the terms “hard” policy (rules, regulations, and formal agreements) and “soft” policy (consensus building; standardization of practice). Focusing primarily on hard policies limits effectiveness for several reasons:
- Governance: Every community college system operates to varying degrees on a shared governance model that requires consensus, not top-down fiat, to ensure success.
- Implementation processes: State regulations are often unavoidably or intentionally ambiguous and require local translation. All hard policies are vulnerable to this distortion effect.
- Buy-in: Institutional staff who are not engaged throughout the policy design and implementation process will feel disconnected from an initiative and less likely to provide the critical mass necessary to ensure maximum impact and culture shift.
JFF strongly encourages state policy teams to consider both hard and soft policies as they think about policy levers and other policy efforts aimed at improving the adoption, expansion, and sustainability of integrated pathways models.