The Impact Of State Involvement And Policy On Student Learning

In discussing the relationship between state governments and higher education, Hearn & Holdsworth (2002) acknowledge that within the United States, responsibility for quality and outcomes within education has historically been decentralized to the local level. Therefore, it remains possible, and is still quite common, for educational experiences to differ vastly. For example, the syllabus, outcomes, and educational experiences of students enrolled in an introductory class in college writing, perhaps English 101, at a community college are probably different from the English 101 course offered at a public land grant institution within the same state.

While both courses are offered at public institutions and arguably have similar objectives, student learning and achievement potentially differs, creating a problematic situation for legislators and higher education administrators alike. This notion, coupled with growing demands for greater accountability within higher education, especially as the cost of attendance continues to rise, served as the impetus for a change in roles among elected state officials. In this significant shift, state legislators along with governors are now serving as ‘interveners’ as opposed to ‘encouragers’ when creating and implementing policy impacting higher education; this is observable when reviewing both contemporary and older legislation (McGuinness, 1994).

Before addressing both the historical foundations as well as the contemporary issues within higher education policy, one needs to understand the different policy instruments used by policymakers. Common instruments include mandates and inducements, and often target the larger ‘system’ while focusing on building capacity in specific institutions of higher learning (Hearn & Holdsworth, 2002). In analyzing higher education policy, it is important to consider both the state-level influences such as economic, political, social and cultural characteristics, in addition to institutional level characteristics such as institutional mission, type, and governance structure (Hearn & Holdsworth, 2002). Over the past few decades, legislation was enacted which directly influenced academic programming, staffing, and accountability structures.

These policies codified the state’s role in developing performance-funding structures; dictating mission development and differentiation; offering remedial education; fostering transfer and articulation; managing online and distance learning; as well as developing admissions requirements and processes. Faculty workload, administrator and employee salaries, and reward structures including merit and sabbatical leaves have also been of interest amongst state policymakers (Hearn & Holdsworth, 2002). In reviewing this laundry list of legislative priorities and administrative policy areas, it is clear that policymakers and state coordinating bodies have previously, and continue to, focus their attention on areas that directly or indirectly affect student learning.

Despite an increased interest in higher education, is it important to situate these efforts within the larger context of state policy making. State legislators are faced with a myriad of social, political and economic issues to address; therefore, higher education policy must compete with other legislative efforts focused on criminal justice, healthcare, finance, elections, citizen behaviors and expectations, as well as K-12 education. This is good and bad for the academy; the good news is other crises are more likely to consume the attention of political leaders, often removing higher education from the ‘spotlight;’ however, the bad news is that these multiple competing legislative priorities also affect state allocations for higher education, a trend not new to the academy (McGuinness, 1994).

State Involvement & Policy-Making:

Historical Foundations and Contemporary Issues

In a report for the National Governors Association, Hersh & Benjamin (2001) provided a detailed historical analysis of state higher education policy. This report proposed that traditionally state policy focused on access within higher education, which some believe was to the detriment of quality (McGuinness, 1994). This focus on increasing access consumed the attention of state elected officials in the 1960’s and 1970’s; Clark Kerr forecast, “the 1980’s as the “Decade of the States,” a decade where policy leadership would be dominated by governors, and when higher education could expect far more aggressive efforts aimed at connecting it to the states’ social and economic agendas” (McGuinness, 1994, p. 7). The 1980’s, and after, were characterized by limited federal oversight, as the role and involvement of the state in higher education policy would increase substantially. With constant calls for greater accountability and the rising cost of attendance, legislative priorities shifted again and began targeting the ‘return on investment’ of higher education in the 1990’s, as opposed to increasing access and strategic funding during the previous decades (Hersh & Benjamin, 2002).

In addressing this shift in priorities over time, Hersh & Benjamin (2002) argue that state policy should consider and speak to both ‘access’ and ‘quality’ if meaningful improvement to public higher education is to occur in the 21st century. In discussing the ongoing deterioration of higher education, Hersh & Benjamin (2002) provide evidence such as minimal skill development in mathematics and graduates’ lack of coursework in literature to substantiate this claim. The competence of recent graduates remains a primary concern of both corporate and civic leaders, as these graduates will be required to navigate an ever-changing and complex global marketplace (Hersh & Benjamin, 2002). Even as enrollments continue to grow, the report for the National Governors Association suggests that quality assessment remains the key to improving higher education and ultimately to enhancing student outcomes.

Furthermore, when considering the effect of state policy on student learning, it is important to note that low retention rates and early institutional assessment data does not predict flawed policy. Additionally, while prospective students and their families often rely on external rankings to portray excellence or quality within higher education, these rankings also do not adequately depict the impact of public policy on access or quality, much less on student learning and achievement. By shifting the policy agenda to focus on the measurement of the “value added” or how an institution fosters the growth of its students from entrance to exit, Hersh & Benjamin (2002) postulate that a culture of meaningful assessment would follow. The benefits of utilizing a value-added assessment approach are plentiful; however, they are also countered by several barriers, most notably; the challenge of violating ‘academic freedom.’

An earlier report, authored by McGuinness (1994) and published by the Education Commission of the States as part of the State Policy and College Learning (SPCL) project, detail the ever-changing role of the state in enacting policy that fosters or affects student learning at the undergraduate level. The SPCL project aimed to connect policy with undergraduate learning in five states; in exploring these policies further, the researchers attempted to identify the barriers that prohibited institutional change.

McGuinness (1994) acknowledged the influence of state policy on undergraduate education is largely indirect; however, he does suggest that undergraduate learning is impacted most by institutional influences. The five states considered were geographically diverse and featured different higher education governance structures; the states were Colorado, Maine, Vermont, New Jersey, and Washington. In creating a self-assessment guide, McGuinness (1994) noted that ‘good practices’ related to undergraduate learning were well-researched; however, were not practiced commonly. These practices often take place at the institutional, or grass roots level, and were typically not influenced by state policy (McGuiness, 1994).

There were two stages within the SPCL project. The first stage consisted of a self-study of the impact of state policy on undergraduate learning; this ‘study’ relied on responses from various actors, both those within higher education and those that were political, relating to the impact of state-level policy changes. In preparing for the second phase, the project leaders adjusted their plan and chose to review relevant state policy and then convene policy and higher education leaders for discussion. The findings of these dialogues suggest that the culture of every state, with regard to its history, economic and political environments, influenced the ways in which state governments interact with institutions of higher education. Furthermore, these dialogues also suggested that the role, work, and authority of state coordinating boards is in flux and ultimately affects student learning.

In a recent report, published by the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania, Finney, Perna & Callan (2014) examined the impact of state-led higher education efforts and policy across five similar states: Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Texas and Washington. The report exposed that states often experience difficulty in allocating resources strategically; leveraging educational opportunities to meet student needs; and successfully transitioning students between various educational institutions in the higher education stratosphere (Finney, Perna & Callan, 2014).

To address these challenges, the report offered six strategic recommendations pertaining to equity; political consensus; addressing institutional performance; developing pathways to degrees and certificates; alignment between regional needs and public institutions; and using financial incentives and finance policy to influence institutional behavior (Finney, Perna & Callan, 2014). These strategic recommendations address both institutional and state characteristics affecting student learning while offering insight into actionable steps for progress.

Following review of the historical foundations and the debates to date centered on higher education policy, this paper will now identify and analyze several contemporary higher education policy areas, each aimed at enhancing student learning. These contemporary issues include performance funding; transfer and articulation; remedial education; and faculty workload, each of which has been researched by higher education scholars. Before discussing the implications of such policies, I will introduce a contemporary case study to demonstrate how innovative state policy can be leveraged to not only increase access, but to also enhance quality and advance the discourse surrounding student achievement.

Performance Funding

According to Obergfell (2018), 37 states currently utilize some type of performance based funding, also known as PBF. Due to its popularity, performance funding remains one of the most common higher education legislative policies. The intent of this inducement is to enhance student learning or achievement by incentivizing institutional behavior (Hearn & Holdsworth, 2002). As interest in this funding mechanism, or the use of incentives, among state legislators continues to grow, so does the body of literature focused on public perception as well as its impact or effectiveness (Burke & Modarresi, 2000; Colbeck, 2002; Hearn & Holdsworth, 2002; Banta, Rudolph, Van Dyke, & Fisher, 1996). The primary goal of PBF is to allocate limited state funding to the public institutions that are most cost effective and/or actively working to advance state goals (Obergfell, 2018). When designing these funding models, states often use metrics such as time to degree, retention and graduation rates, especially relying on the rates of Pell-eligible and diverse student populations (Obergfell, 2018).

The range of performance funding models is large and constantly evolving due to changes in state funding and desires; however, two common models are the formula-based and target/recapture models. Yet, it can be difficult for a state to create a model or formula that supports the diverse range of institutional types and missions. This challenge in designing an appropriate model does affect outcomes and student success; this is clear when reviewing the scholarship detailing the mixed results of these initiatives (Obergfell, 2018). Regardless of these critiques, this funding mechanism has endured and remains popular nationally; Obergfell (2018) suggests “as state policymakers continue looking for ways to stretch tight budgets, in the midst of increased scrutiny on the value of higher education and the need for a more developed workforce, it is clear that PBF models are here to stay” (p. 2).

In an early study, Banta, Rudolph, Van Dyke, & Fisher (1996) investigated the effectiveness of performance funding within Tennessee, the first state to implement this type of policy. In surveying campus-based performance funding coordinators from 23 public institutions, the researchers sought to understand if the Tennessee model appropriately measured the quality of higher education within the state; if it promoted improvement; and what the most helpful features of the funding model were. The findings demonstrated positive outcomes regarding institutional and state use of this funding mechanism, particularly around the use of assessment to foster institutional improvements. However, this study only considered the insight of campus coordinators, not other academic administrators or faculty.

Banta, Rudolph, Van Dyke, & Fisher (1996) did acknowledge that while faculty and others across Tennessee might have a negative view of this policy, the statewide committee responsible for evaluating the performance funding model metrics and providing recommendations regarding the future of the program has decided every year to continue with the performance-funding model. It is also important to note that this committee is comprised solely of university administrators. The reason why, the researchers submit, is that the performance funding in Tennessee is in addition to the state allocation for higher education; therefore, institutions can earn significantly more by working to address the PBF standards and aligning their work with state goals (Banta, Rudolph, Van Dyke, & Fisher, 1996).

In building on the research of Banta et al, Colbeck (2002) also sought to investigate perceptions and effectiveness surrounding the Tennessee performance funding initiative, albeit two decades after its implementation. Colbeck (2002) found that the length of time since policy implementation does affect popularity and perception. Interviews with faculty and administrators occurred almost 20 years after the implementation of this performance-funding model; therefore, respondents occasionally could not differentiate between institutional changes that were a result of this policy and the current day-to-day operations of the university. In discussing the implications of this study, Colbeck (2002) suggests that this state policy and others would be more effective if policymakers leveraged both professional and democratic controls, and involved faculty in the planning and implementation.

While the previous two studies focused solely on the Tennessee performance-funding model, Burke & Modarresi (2000) sought to define the characteristics of successful PBFs by analyzing nine different programs. To collect data, both political and institutional representatives in nine states were surveyed. Burke & Modarresi (2000) found that stable programs necessitate continued collaboration between political and higher education representatives, as well as connect institutional effectiveness efforts to increased state funding. Additionally, successful programs arise from policy goals that value quality, and provide ample time for planning and implementation. Substantial yet restricted funding is also critical for success, and programs that garner additional funding as opposed to reallocating existing state funds also tend to be more successful. Stability with state priorities and a focus to the future amongst campus based professional are also important when determining which performance-funding programs endure versus those that do not.

Transfer & Articulation

In a 2005 Policy Brief, the American Association of State Colleges & Universities (AASCU) shared an alarming statistic; 71% of students entering community college intend on earning a four-year degree; however, only 25% transfer to a four-year institution. With statistics like these, it remains obvious that barriers like the inability to transfer credits or move between institutions inhibit student learning. In discussing the significance of this issue and its impact on student learning and achievement, AASCU (2005) writes, “… given that community colleges increasingly serve as the entry point into higher education for baccalaureate degree seekers, particularly low-income and minority students. The ability to transfer and complete a bachelor’s degree, a critical requirement for middle-class status, has become a key access and equity issue” (p. 1).

These barriers have attracted the attention of state legislators and coordinating bodies, both of which are demonstrating a deep interest in this policy area, partly due to the economic impact. The AASCU policy brief acknowledged four challenges inherit within transfer and articulation: overcoming the elitism of the academy and removing the stigma associated with attending a “lesser” institution; transfer universities not accepting credits taken at trade, vocational or even accredited for-profit institutions; a guarantee that students whom complete general education requirements can transition into third-year major specific coursework easily; and the lack of advisement and support for students throughout this transition (AASCU, 2005).

In an earlier publication, Robertson & Frier (1996) reviewed a joint statement from the American Council on Education and American Association of Junior and Community Colleges, and provided three recommendations for how states can best manage transfer and articulation. The first relates to policy; the recommendation is that state governments provide broad policies on transfer and articulation, but not mandate specific regulations relating to admissions or enrollment. The second recommendation suggests that states implement special programs or services to support transfer students, and provide sustainable funding for these initiatives.

Lastly, states should collect and disseminate data and information relating to transfer students; by doing so, states can benchmark and ultimately enhance this experience for students as well as the increase the rates of transfer and number of credits accepted. Robertson & Frier (1996) also advise that states should offer financial aid for transfer students, use state budget allocations to influence institutional behaviors, leverage technology, and aid in developing, although not dictate, admissions standards. Similarly, articulation agreements should be drafted free of legislative intervention; instead, states can assist with these efforts by managing course equivalencies (Robertson & Frier, 1996).

In alignment with this earlier publication, AASCU (2005) offered similar strategies for enhancing transfer and articulation. These include the development of statewide standards including cooperative agreements, common course numbering systems, and a common core, as well as the use of state dollars and student financial aid to entice institutions as well as students. Due to the growing interest of policymakers, state involvement in articulation and transfer is rapidly expanding. In 2005, at least 30 states utilized a statewide common core; this initiative allows a student whom completes the general education core at one institution the ability to transfer to another within the same state and count these credits towards the transfer institution’s general education requirements (AASCU, 2005). Furthermore, at least 14 states use a common course numbering system; this program allows credits to transfer between institutions using a common course number assigned based upon course content and rigor (AASCU, 2005).

Remedial Education

Remedial education remains a contentious topic within the academy; faculty and administrators have long engaged in the debate of its role, place, and relevance within higher education. Yet, within the recent past, legislators and government oversight agencies have also intervened making it a popular topic within higher education policy, one that directly influences student learning. Despite differing opinions, the reality is troubling especially for students. In further elaborating on this juxtaposition, Jimenez (2018) eloquently writes, “remedial education held real promise at its origin. It served as an on-ramp to college for students who were underprepared in the subjects of reading, writing, and mathematics. In the present day, however, remedial education often acts as an exit ramp, derailing many students in need of additional academic support from ever enrolling in college courses or completing their undergraduate degree” (p.2).

Remedial education remains costly, both for the student and for the institution (Jimenez, 2018). Typically, students are charged a fee to participate in these mandatory courses; however, often they do not receive college credit for successful completion ultimately hindering their trajectory within the academy. Low retention rates coupled with the student populations typically targeted for remedial education poses significant concern; as most often, it is students from under-represented populations enrolling in these courses (Jimenez, 2018). Another challenge facing remedial education lies with whom or how students are selected for these programs. Critical questions surrounding the legitimacy and appropriateness of using a student’s standardized test scores or relying on faculty recommendations remain unanswered (Jimenez, 2018). In looking ahead and discussing how to reform remedial education, Jimenez (2018) offers two bold suggestions; first, significantly better coordination between K-12 and higher education, and next, the improvement of all areas within, or a total redesign of, remedial education.

Mills (1998) studied the effects of an early state policy focused on remediation coursework. This policy was authored and enacted by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education (OSHRE); the coordinating body for public colleges and universities in Oklahoma. The policy mandated that degree-seeking ‘traditionally-aged’ students take remedial coursework if they scored below 19 on any of the ACT sub-tests (Mills, 1998). Yet, students would not receive college credit for completion of these remedial courses and were charged a fee to participate. Mills (1998) explored how representatives from three public institutions not only understood this policy, but also how they reconciled their own beliefs with the policy mandate.

The three institutions included a state-funded HBCU, a metropolitan community college, and a public comprehensive university, each boasting a different mission and serving a different student population. Mills (1998) found that university officials had minimal to no respect for the coordinating body with regard to policymaking, and that they were not supportive of the mandates within the policy. The study participants were also not in support of the surcharge assigned to students whom were mandated to enroll in this coursework due to their ACT scores. However, Mills (1998) did note that representatives from each of the three institutions acknowledged an unintended yet positive consequence of this policy; institutions were forced to examine their role in providing remedial education and how this service or mandate ultimately advanced their university’s mission.

Faculty Workload

As state policymakers continue to advance legislative platforms that enhance undergraduate learning, faculty workload becomes a viable mechanism for review and action. Using data from the 1992-1993 National Survey of Postsecondary Faculty, Fairweather & Beach (2002) reported that the time faculty spent teaching ranged from 32.2% in the health sciences disciplines to 52.8% in the fine arts. Furthermore, the hours’ faculty spent in class weekly ranged from 5.3 hours for engineering faculty to 8 hours for health sciences faculty. This type of data frequently alarms lawmakers whom believe these numbers should be dramatically higher and as a result, undergraduate student learning and achievement would increase.

However, allocating more effort or workload to undergraduate education is costly for an institution; faculty then have less time to conduct research as well as teach, mentor, and advise graduate students, two areas that also generate significant funding and prestige for a university. In discussing the intent behind state legislation mandating changes in faculty workload, Fairweather & Beach (2002) suggest, “Although rarely stated openly, the principal targets of these public policies and proposed strategies are the major research universities. Explicit or not, many state higher education policies are meant to redress the common perception that teaching – especially undergraduate teaching – is underappreciated in universities with a purportedly unfettered commitment to scholarship” (p. 98).

In a study published the same year, Colbeck (2002) explored the effects of two state policies that shared the goal of enhancing undergraduate learning. One of the two policies was the Ohio faculty workload mandate. Due to declining state budgets and lawmaker concerns about faculty disregard for undergraduate teaching, grounded in the minimal time spent in the classroom, the Ohio workload mandate required faculty employed at public institutions in Ohio to increase the time spent teaching by 10%. Additionally, the mandate required all public institutions to develop workload standards, which must include an expectation for time-spent teaching in alignment with departmental mission. The goal of this legislation was to enhance the quality of undergraduate learning by increasing the energy faculty allocated to teaching activities.

In considering the perceptions of faculty and administrators, Colbeck (2002) found that the length of time since policy implementation affected popularity or perception. At the time of study, the Ohio mandate was fairly new and fresh in the minds of the respondents. Yet, it was also clear that university administrators worked to limit the burden or impact of state policies on faculty. For example, academic administrators in Ohio did not expect faculty to spend more teaching; therefore, university staff altered the way they reported faculty time to the state to ensure compliance with this mandate. Additionally, when developing departmental workload expectations, academic administrators did not connect the development of this document to the Ohio workload mandate. Interestingly enough, this mandate also did nothing to impact faculty’s view of their teaching. While faculty members acknowledged their teaching had changed over the previous five years, they noted several other reasons but none were due to this mandate.

Fairweather & Beach (2002) also explored faculty work behaviors and the impact of state policies on teaching. Using a case study approach, researchers interviewed academic administrators as well as faculty at three institutions; a public research I institution, a public masters-level university, and a private liberal arts college, in three different states with differing policies relating to faculty workload. Fairweather & Beach (2002) found that the variation of practice within a specific institution is dependent on departmental external funding and resource development. More specifically, teaching expectations and the behaviors of faculty within academic departments that generated significant external funding was very different from departments with no external grants, even within the same institution (Fairweather & Beach, 2002). There are also inter-departmental differences; undergraduate teaching was occasionally viewed as a punishment for non-productive faculty or as a service to other faculty who are highly productive in their research. At these institutions, it was clear that research was valued most, and therefore, rewards were allocated accordingly.

Contemporary Case Study: The VA Restructuring Act of 2005

Unlike most other states, the Commonwealth of Virginia has begun to address the issue of greater calls for accountability and decreased state financial support through formal legislation. In 2004 three institutions in Virginia, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and the College of William and Mary, drafted and presented a joint proposal to the General Assembly to receive a state-granted “charter.” This proposed legislation, known as the Commonwealth Chartered Universities and Colleges Act, limited state financial support in exchange for the ability of these institutions to set their own tuition and self-regulate, as long as there was also a commitment to advance the state’s performance standards for higher education (University of Virginia, 2018). While this act ultimately failed, this proposal served as the conduit for new legislation that would address this complex yet common issue. The following year, the Restructured Higher Education Financial and Administrative Operations Act, also known as the Virginia Restructuring Act of 2005, was passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by the Governor (University of Virginia, 2018).

This legislation explicitly required each institution’s Board of Visitors (BOV), the governing body, to commit to the following twelve state goals: access, affordability, academic offerings, academic standards, student progress and success, articulation and dual enrollment, economic development, research, enhancing K-12 education, six-year planning, finance and administrative operations, and campus safety and security (State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, 2017). In return for committing to these state goals and meeting certain metrics, public institutions would receive financial incentives and be subject to decreased state oversight (State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, 2017). This legislation acknowledged the difference and diversity of institutional type and resources; institutions were provided the opportunity to “self-select” their involvement based upon the perceived benefits combined with the aligned expectations (Spigel, 2005). Institutions that met the annual performance standards outlined by the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV), and received approval of their six-year plan with academic, financial, and enrollment metrics, could participate in the three-level system (Spigel, 2005).

Level One, or the level with the least institutional autonomy, provides financial and administrative benefits when the institution’s BOV commits to the state’s higher education goals mentioned above. These benefits include receiving interest earned on tuition and fees, exemptions from select fees and reporting requirements, and additional authority in managing property and construction projects (Spigel, 2005). Level Two allows public institutions to enter into a MOU with the Commonwealth that outlines areas for which additional authority will be given to the institution as well as defining the criteria for this shift in responsibility (Spigel, 2005). Level Three, or the level with the most institutional autonomy, is characterized by a decentralization of authority from the state to the institution in six areas including capital projects, property leases, information technology, procurement, human resources, and financial operations (University of Virginia, 2018). In order to obtain this designation, institutions must enter into a Management Agreement with the Governor, which is then approved by the General Assembly (Spigel, 2005).

There is limited evidence, either through scholarly research or formal reports, detailing the short and long term effectiveness of this legislation. However, the notoriety of the benefits associated with the second and third levels has spread; within one decade of this legislation passing, there are now four public institutions to hold the level-three designation and receive the accompanying benefits. Virginia Commonwealth University joined the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and the College of William & Mary in 2008 as a level-three institution. Additionally, between the reporting periods of 2014 and 2016, there was a change of one additional level-two institution, the University of Mary Washington.

The Auditor of Public Accounts within the Commonwealth of Virginia found that 17 public institutions, including the Virginia Community College System, received over $38 million in financial incentives from interest earnings, credit card rebates, sole source procurement rebates, and in retaining unused state appropriations during FY 2009 (Auditor of Public Accounts, 2009). In reality, this dollar amount is higher; the level-three institutions invest their tuition and fee revenue dollars based upon their annual certification so these funds do not earn interest in the State Treasury as the revenue for other institutions does (Auditor of Public Accounts, 2009). Despite the lack of assessment data or research available pertaining to the effectiveness or impact of this legislation, there were several early publications, which reviewed the intended and unintended consequences of this policy.

In a case study depicting the journey of this legislation, Leslie & Berdahl (2008) offer a brief description of several immediate outcomes along with considerations. Leslie & Berdahl (2008) suggested that additional funding would flow from the state to institutions; while they estimated that between $25-30 million would be allocated, latter evidence by the Auditor of Public Accounts confirmed this hypothesis and demonstrated even larger financial benefits. Furthermore, Leslie & Berdahl (2008) also referenced an earlier report which suggested that with fewer state restrictions, public institutions might be able to secure more external funding to support critical needs including infrastructure and personnel, ultimately enhancing institutional effectiveness (Breneman & Kneedler, 2006, as cited in Leslie & Berdahl, 2008). This speculation has already proven to be true for at least one institution; in 2017, the University of Virginia was on track to raise more through private donors than it received from the Commonwealth in state appropriations (Quizon, 2017).


There is no denying that this innovative legislation fundamentally reformed the relationship between the state and public higher education within the Commonwealth of Virginia; and in doing so, the state’s commitment to fostering excellence within student learning and achievement became clearer. This commitment is demonstrated through a change in the role of state’s higher education coordinating agency, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. The Code of Virginia states “[The Council shall…] in cooperation with public institutions of higher education, develop guidelines for the assessment of student achievement. Each such institution shall use an approved program that complies with the guidelines of the Council and is consistent with the institutions mission and education objectives in the development of such assessment. The Council shall report each institutions assessment of student achievement in the revisions to the Commonwealth’s statewide strategic plan for higher education” (SCHEV, 2017).

As depicted throughout the case study above, great emphasis within the scholarship and media is often given to acknowledging the substantial financial benefit and limited oversight of the state in institutional operational matters when discussing this legislation; however, there seems to be a significant part of the narrative missing. By limiting oversight responsibilities and decentralizing certain financial processes, elected officials and SCHEV can now devote their attention to assessing and enhancing student learning across the state and within various institutions. In reviewing the twelve components of the act, it is clear that this legislation made assessment and quality assurance a priority. Each public institution is required to submit an assessment plan outlining specific competencies, outcomes, and evaluation strategies. In closing the loop, each institution must then submit a report detailing their success and challenges in advancing each of these efforts; and both reports are publically available. Within the assessment plan, each institution must assess student achievement in six areas; four areas are dictated by SCHEV and include critical thinking, written communication, quantitative reasoning, and civic engagement; and the institution selects two other competency areas (SCHEV, 2017).

Furthermore, following the passage of this legislation, it appears that state lawmakers have remain interested in moving the needle and advancing the conversation relating to student success. In reviewing the Virginia Plan for Higher Education, the second goal reads to “optimize student success for work and life” and a 2016 priority was to “strengthen curricular options to ensure that graduates are prepared with the competencies necessary for employment and civic engagement” (SCHEV, 2017). In reviewing SCHEV’s Policy on Student Learning & Quality in Undergraduate Education, one will quickly note that the first principle in the Principles Guiding Assessment and Quality Assurance section is “Student Learning is the core mission of higher education” (SCHEV, 2017).

These bold statements not only demonstrate a sustained commitment to excellence within student learning, but are also in alignment with the current trends in state higher education policy. SCHEV’s goals and efforts focus on the ‘return on investment’ of higher education to the Commonwealth. By increasing access for under-represented populations and elevating the quality of the educational experience by responding to five of the ‘state asks’ (institutional academic offerings; academic standards; student progress and success articulation and dual enrollment; and campus safety and security), institutions are able to demonstrate their contributions to the economic, social, and culture advancement of the Commonwealth.

Implications & Considerations

The discourse surrounding higher education policy and its impact on student learning within the academy has evolved significantly over the last 50 years. In review of scholarly articles, academic book chapters, as well as multiple reports and policy briefs produced by professional organizations, think tanks and research centers, many of which are referenced throughout this paper, I am reminded of several considerations and implications for future research and practice. These considerations are both practical and philosophical in nature; some offer hope, while others create a space for pause and reflection.

In discussing the implications of his study, Colbeck (2002) poses a deeply philosophical yet important question: should higher education be subject to professional or democratic control? Colbeck (2002) argued that state policies would be more effective if they leveraged both controls and involved relevant stakeholders in the planning, implementation, and ongoing management. Similarly, Mills (1998) explores this idea when discussing the negative impact of ‘top down’ policymaking as opposed to ‘bottom up’ within the context of the Oklahoma remedial education mandate. In alignment with Colbeck’s position, Mills (1998) believes the Oklahoma Regents policy would have been more effective if multiple stakeholders including faculty were engaged throughout the process.

However, the reality is that the ‘top-down’ or democratic approach to policymaking is evident across most of the contemporary issues introduced within this paper, especially those which use a mandate as the policy instrument. The literature, along with these examples, demonstrate this change in orientation over time with state elected officials more apt to act and legislate as opposed to partner with university leadership and faculty, as they did when policymakers first begun shaping higher education legislation. This could be due to the mistrust of lawmakers or perhaps the academy’s inability to change fast enough, or perhaps a combination of both. This change in orientation also aligns with the notion that state elected officials are now serving as ‘interveners’ rather than ‘encouragers’ when advancing higher education policy.

Another important consideration and with a potential glimpse of optimism, McGuinness (1994) offers two projections that could alter future higher education policy efforts as well as shift the research agendas of higher education scholars. First, he postulates that the need for change in higher education might not be as significant as what is needed in K-12 education (McGuinness, 1994). His argument relies on the public perception that K-12 education is deeply and systemically flawed; and therefore, in need of greater involvement from state officials. This proposition combined with a proposed paradigm shift that as funding for higher education increases, the urgency for change amongst elected state leaders will also decrease signals a new day for higher education (McGuinness, 1994). This shift in state priorities would not only alter the current relationship between institutions of higher learning and state leaders, but also influence the philosophical underpinnings driving policy development. Furthermore, if these two items were to be true, one could see a renewed emphasis on secondary and post-secondary partnerships, both within research and state education policy.

McGuinness (1994) also suggested that the role, work, and authority of state coordinating boards is in flux. This perception, introduced in the Education Commission of the States report, is validated in recent literature and offers insight into larger shifts occurring within higher education governance. In review of the contemporary case study, the Virginia Code authorized SCHEV to exercise greater power in mandating student and institutional outcomes but also in ensuring institutional compliance. Previously, coordinating agencies, including SCHEV, were tasked with collaborating with institutions to advance public education generally; today, it seems their role and locus of responsibility is growing. This shift in power dynamic also aligns with trends in higher education policy, most notably with policy makers, regardless of type, shifting their orientation from an ‘encourager’ to an ‘intervener.’ Furthermore, with coordinating bodies exercising greater authority and power, legislators committed to reform within higher education, can begin to step back and focus on other economic, financial, social, and political issues, while allowing these agencies to take on a role they held in the not too recent past. With this transition, one might expect to see administrative policy, focused on student learning and achievement, issued from these agencies or bodies as opposed to legislation from state houses.


In a report published at the turn of the century, Hersh & Benjamin (2001) suggest that by leveraging “value-added” measurement as a signature policy approach, student learning would improve, as it would then be at the center of all public higher education policymaking. By using this approach and focusing on the holistic development of each student, future policies, relying on inducements and rewards to encourage institutional behavior, would be more effective. It is now known that the influence of state policy in fostering student achievement is largely indirect; however, institutional characteristics and grassroots ‘best practices’ are most impactful in fostering student growth, learning and achievement. This concept explains the increased emphasis on institutional effectiveness within recent higher education policies, and suggests that scholars and policymakers alike further explore how states can reward institutions for becoming more effective, not only in conducting undergraduate education, but also financially and operationally. In reviewing the scholarship detailed throughout this paper, it is clear that higher education representatives view inducements as more effective than mandates. This is seen in the tenure and popularity of performance-based funding as well as the widespread support for addressing issues around transfer and articulation. Perhaps, the answer


American Association of State Colleges and Universities. (2005). Developing transfer and articulation policies that make a difference. Policy Matters, 2(7). Retrieved from
Auditor of Public Accounts: Commonwealth of Virginia. (2009). Review of data collection and process over institutional performance standards. Retrieved from
Banta, T.W., Rudolph, L.B., Van Dyke, J., & Fisher, H.S. (1996). Performance funding comes of age in Tennessee. Journal of Higher Education, 67, 23-45.
Burke, J. C., & Modarresi, S. (2000). To keep or not to keep performance funding: Signals from stakeholders. Journal of Higher Education, 71, 432–453.
Colbeck, C. L. (2002). State policies to improve undergraduate teaching. The Journal of Higher Education, 73, 4–25
Fairweather, J. & Beach, A. (2002). Variations in faculty work at research universities: Implications for state and institutional policy. The Review of Higher Education, 26(1), 97-115.
Finney, J., Perna, L., & Callan, P. (2014). Renewing the Promise: State Policies to Improve Higher Education Performance. Institute for Research on Higher Education. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from
Jiminez, L. (2018). How to Reform Remedial Education. Center for American Progress. Retrieved from
Hebel, S. (2005, February 10). Virginia lawmakers approve plan to give public colleges more autonomy. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from
Hersh, R. H., & Benjamin, R. (2001). Assessing the quality of student learning: An imperative for state policy and practice. Washington, DC: National Governor’s Association, Center
for Best Practices.
Hearn, J.C., & Holdsworth, J.M. (2002) Influences of state-level policies and practices on college students’ learning. Peabody Journal of Education, 77:3, 6-39. DOI: 10.1207/S15327930PJE7703_2
Leslie, D.W., & Berdahl, R.O. (2008). The politics of restructuring higher education in Virginia: A case study. The Review of Higher Education, 31(3), 309-323.
McGuinness, A. C., Jr. (1994). A Framework for Evaluating State Policy Roles in Improving Undergraduate Education: Stimulating Long-Term Systemic Change. Boulder, CO: Education Commission of the States.
Mills, M. (1998). From coordinating board to campus: Implementation of a policy mandate on remedial education. Journal of Higher Education, 69, 672-697.
Obergfell, M. (2018). Performance based funding is here to stay. Blog. New America. Retrieved from
Quizon, B. (2017, June 17). A new way for UVA? Rise in private donations could change how the university makes decisions. The Daily Progress. Retrieved from
Robertson, P. F., & Frier, T. (1996). The role of the state in transfer and articulation. New Directions for Community Colleges, 96, 15–24.
Spigel, S. (2005). Virginia Higher Education Restructuring Law. Retrieved from
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