College Completion, the Texas Way: An Examination of the Development of College Completion Policy in a Distinctive Political Culture
by Denisa Gándara & James C. Hearn - 2019
Background: College-completion policies dominate state higher education policy agendas. Yet we know little about how policy actors make decisions—and what sources of evidence they use—within this policy domain.
Focus of Study: This study explores the use of evidence in college-completion policymaking in depth, focusing on Texas. In addition to exploring policymakers’ use of different types of information, this study examines the role played by intermediaries.
Research Design: We employed a qualitative case study design drawing on interviews with 32 policy actors engaged in college-completion policy in Texas. Our analysis consisted of both deductive coding (based on our a priori coding scheme) and inductive coding (based on emerging themes) to arrive at our four major findings.
Findings/Results: The analysis revealed four primary findings. The first theme suggests an insular culture of college-completion policymaking: Policymakers at various levels preferred Texas-based data and rejected the notion that external groups contributed to setting the college completion agenda in Texas. Second, business groups and a business ethos permeated college-completion policymaking in Texas. Third, research evidence was seldom employed in this policy process, partly because policymakers prefer concise and timely information. Finally, the study uncovered a new tactic for supplying research employed by certain intermediaries: punchy messaging, which was effective at garnering attention but also yielded unintended consequences.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Overwhelmingly, higher education policy actors tended to prefer Texas-based data. Respondents cited three major reasons for this preference: the high quality of the state higher education coordinating board’s data, Texas’s unique demographics, and the accessibility of statewide data. These findings reflect the mediating role that is played not only by state structural characteristics, but also by culture. Perceptions of Texas’s distinctive inward-looking nature permeated our interviews and set the stage for the role that intermediaries played in the state and the preferences for information. Intermediaries wishing to inform college-completion policy activity at the state level should consider the uniqueness of the state context in supplying information. For states that are more insular, like Texas, working through internal (in-state) intermediaries may be an effective strategy. In light of our findings of preferred types of information, those intending to influence policymaking should consider making information—especially research evidence—concise and easily accessible and establish relationships with policymakers and their staff members.
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