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The Attainment Agenda: State Policy Leadership in Higher Education

reviewed by Amber M. Gonzalez - February 08, 2016

coverTitle: The Attainment Agenda: State Policy Leadership in Higher Education
Author(s): Laura W. Perna, Joni E. Finney
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421414066, Pages: 328, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

Postsecondary educational attainment is one of the best predictors for reducing inequality and increasing economic opportunities for all (Cooper, Chavira, & Mena, 2005; Gladieux & Swail, 1999). State use of federal resources to implement policies to improve postsecondary educational attainment correspondingly becomes critically important. In their edited volume The Attainment Agenda: State Policy Leadership in Higher Education, Laura W. Perna and Joni E. Finney analyze how the federal government influences state responsibilities to develop policies to increase postsecondary educational attainment across groups.

The authors begin by focusing on national workforce demands, and bring attention to the implications of a lack of educational attainment improvement on our labor market. Perna and Finney project that 63% of jobs will require education beyond high school in 2018, up from 56% in 1992 and just 28% in 1973 (p. 2) using data from the Bureau of Labor of Statistics and research concerning the continued upskilling of current jobs.

In addition to noting national labor market gaps, the authors also examine attainment gaps within individual states, presenting case studies of Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Texas, and Washington. These five cases allow readers to contextualize how individual states develop and implement policies at the local level to advance educational attainment. Perna and Finney claim that, a state within a nation cannot be prosperous without a highly educated population (p. 3). Therefore, one of the primary purposes of their book is to provide a comprehensive analysis of how federal and state policies work together to impact educational attainment at the student level. It also examines how this performance is related to college degree completion, affordability, and access for the populations the state serves.

I use a macro-meso-micro framework to provide a better understanding of The Attainment Agendas structure. This framework allows me to understand how Perna and Finney present the federal government as one force of political power at the macro level and how this level of power influences the development of state policies at the meso level. This framework also allows me to understand how both of these forces influence student degree attainment at institutions at the micro level. Although the authors were unable to describe every macro-meso-micro relationship, as they are unlimited, they do a worthy job of presenting the relationships between the federal and state policies, and how these influence postsecondary student attainment.


Perna and Finney present federal government policies that emphasize funding of basic and applied research at U.S. universities. They argue that federal investment in research does little to raise the nations educational attainment, as these research dollars can solely be used to support research and therefore not directly impact enrollment. In contrast, Perna and Finney suggest that the federal government encourages individual participation in higher education through its investment in student financial aid.

Perna and Finney argue that the federal governments approach to student financial assistance lacks any philosophical coherence, and has too many policy and program contractions that often limit student opportunities to participate in these funding programs. This is a common argument why financial aid cannot solely be responsible for educational attainment (Gladieux & Swail, 1999). The authors subsequently argue that states are responsible for improving postsecondary educational attainment and reducing gaps in attainment across groups. Perna and Finney believe that although the federal government may create policies that complement and incentivize the work of states, state governments have the primary responsibility for addressing the educational needs of their state and population (p. 21). This leads the authors to present five contrasting case studies.


In the second section of their book, Perna and Finney examine the relationship between federal and state policy and higher education performance at the meso level. The authors begin to answer the question of how state policy explains the performance of higher education using case studies of Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Texas, and Washington. Perna and Finney provide a detailed chapter on the selection of each state based on population served, representation of diversity, educational performance, geographic location, current and projected college-going population, fiscal resources, political culture, higher education system, and variations of postsecondary enrollment served.

Perna and Finney present the performance of higher education within each case study and the structure of the higher education system within each state, including any gender, racial, or ethnic gaps. The authors then propose variables explaining within-state performance and do a good job of presenting themes for each of these jurisdictions. For example, Perna and Finney present four themes that explain higher education performance in Texas. Each case study concludes with a presentation of suggestions that each state government could consider to increase educational attainment. This is one of the primary areas in which each case study differs, as the goals of the state begin to dictate the authors approach within each chapter.


Although books focusing on educational attainment often incorporate theories about persistence and retention, Perna and Finney present a volume on the impact of federal and state policies on local and national educational attainment trends, and conduct a more systemic analysis. It is an excellent resource for state policymakers to better understand the development of innovative policies by other states. For example, it details how Texas offers dual credit courses to improve student transitions from high school to college, and how these policies have influenced student performance and completion rate. However, Perna and Finney do not go into great detail concerning how institutional leaders have implemented these practices at the micro level. One example is their presentation of enrollment trends and the influence of state policies on the number of students participating in dual credit hours. They unfortunately fail to speak to any students about how this policy influenced them or to any university officials about how they reached out to learners. Speaking to institutional agents would help readers better understand how these state policies were implemented at the student level. This would have been a useful resource for practitioners wanting to create such policies and avoid roadblocks.


Perna and Finney focus on lessons learned from these case studies and how policymakers can create better policies to improve educational attainment in their final chapter. Although the authors incorporate state officials voices within their cases, the book would have been enriched if they offered the voices of students and university leaders impacted by these policies. Including a mixed methods approach of presenting quantitative and qualitative data may have provided a more comprehensive overview of the interconnectedness of federal, state, local, or institutional policies that influence student educational attainment.

Overall, Perna and Finney offer a keen analysis of the influence of policies from the federal to state level and how they are related to and build off one another. The case studies also add value to The Attainment Agenda by providing an analysis of how state and federal policies are interconnected, and how these policies impact each states postsecondary enrollment patterns, performance, degree completion, and educational attainment. The authors assert there is no perfect way to improve postsecondary degree attainment. Instead, they call for a more inclusive method that considers how achievement across the K12 education pipeline is connected to degree completion at the postsecondary level.



Cooper, C. R., Chavira, G., & Mena, D. D. (2005). From pipelines to partnerships: A synthesis of research on how diverse families, schools, and communities support childrens pathways through schools. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 10(4), 407430.

Gladieux, L. E., & Swail, W. S. (1999). Financial aid is not enough. In J. E. King (Ed.), Financing a college education: How it works, how its changing. Westport, CT: Oryx Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 08, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19403, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 11:51:48 PM

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About the Author
  • Amber Gonzalez
    California State University Sacramento
    E-mail Author
    AMBER M. GONZALEZ is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at California State University Sacramento.
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