Policy Action Lab brings state advocates together on financial assistance and supports

By Kate Kinder, December 08, 2023

National Skills Coalition held its inaugural State Policy Action Lab on November 14 and 15: Boosting Student Success Through State Financial Assistance and Holistic Supports. Fifty advocates from 14 states, representing a host of community college, human service, workforce, nonprofit, and philanthropic organizations/stakeholders participated in the two-day meeting dedicated to finding systemic solutions to cover the costs of college, support students holistically, and increase the completion of credentials that lead to quality careers. The policy action lab was designed to foster in-depth peer learning among states and deepen understanding of policy levers, funding streams, advocacy strategies, and implications for implementation.

This Policy Action Lab was the first engagement of Expanding College & Career Possibilities: A Policy Action Initiative – a just-launched dynamic peer learning and policy action community aimed at increasing college affordability, holistic supports, and completion of high-quality non-degree credentials that offer pathways to quality careers and further education.

“It was inspiring to learn from so many innovative leaders and dedicated advocates,” Kate Kinder, NSC’s State Strategies Director, observed of the event. “Issues of college affordability, basic needs insecurity, and access to quality jobs cut across higher education, human service, and workforce sectors. Yet too often the silos of our systems prevent systemic solutions that propel opportunity. By creating space for cross-sector peer learning—to elevate what’s working and reimagine what’s possible—we hope to create momentum among and within states to advance policy, partnerships, and systems transformations that advance equitable college and career opportunities.”

The objectives of the policy action lab were to:

  • Elevate effective levers for improving systems and advancing policies that increase college access, affordability, and completion for new majority learners pursuing short-term and career-focused pathways that offer connections to quality careers.
  • Identify strategies for centering students and advancing equity in providing financial and holistic support for students pursuing quality non-degree credentials (QNDCs) and career pathways programs.
  • Foster connections and explore how partnerships among community colleges, state higher education offices and associations, human service agencies, workforce providers, employers, and community-based organizations are boosting equitable student success and remaking the postsecondary ecosystem to support new majority learners.
  • Explore the emerging challenges and solutions, opportunities ahead, and the supports that would aid states and institutions in advancing strategies, investments, policies, and systems to make college more accessible and affordable, especially for new majority learners and students pursuing shorter-term pathways and workforce programs that lead to quality careers.

Common themes emerged throughout the lab, with many bright spots and state successes standing out. Increased investments and promising programs are serving students holistically and making college more accessible and affordable. While this progress is encouraging, leaders also noted that there are still sizable gaps and roadblocks that require sustainable investments and policy solutions to meet the needs of students pursuing short-term pathways. There is also a desire for more data and to understand the impact of recent efforts and investments.

Attendees highlighted that supporting the basic needs of students is critical to boosting equitable student success. Today’s learners need both public benefits and flexible resources, and staff who can help them access and navigate these essential supports. Conversations also elevated a shared sense of responsibility and a clear call to partners and employers to come together to leverage their capacity and resources to provide students with the necessary holistic support, advocate for needed policies and investments, and change the narrative about the value of college and quality non-degree credentials. Lastly, the importance of centering student voice and honoring the expertise that comes with lived experience was threaded throughout the conversations.

When leaders were asked to share the key takeaways they were bringing back to their communities, attendees noted they were hopeful, energized, and motivated by the two days. One attendee said, “I’m leaving renewed and inspired to continue the efforts we’ve started at my community college and local area.”

Many attendees echoed the power of peer learning. One leader remarked, “These past two days have been exceptional and powerful. So much synergy was created by having the right people in the room with such rich knowledge.” Another stated, “The level of experts in the room and the thoughts and ideas were phenomenal. I’m going to re-examine the support to our students.”

Georgia Reagan, a strategy officer at Lumina Foundation, noted that “we understand the financial and holistic supports adult students need to succeed in quality non-degree credential programs. It can feel daunting for states to try to solve these problems alone. That’s why NSC’s Policy Action Labs are so important. It gives leaders the opportunity to share the innovative ways they are using financial assistance and support services to ensure adult student success in their state. Witnessing so much energy and momentum at the in-person lab at Skills in the States forum was powerful. I look forward to seeing this momentum continue with future Policy Action Labs.”

The Policy Action Lab was generously supported by Lumina and ECMC Foundation – organizations that also support NSC’s Making College Work Campaign.

What’s next?

Expanding College & Career Possibilities: A Policy Action Initiative offers college, human service, workforce, and nonprofit stakeholders from 20 states a chance to continue these conversations through a virtual peer learning community, future policy action labs, and tailored technical assistance. States can also inform and access research and tools to help shift the narrative and bolster support for community colleges and new majority learners. Together, these activities will mobilize, scale, and support state systems transformation and the advancement of policies, partnerships, funding, and other reforms that expand access to QNDC pathways and cover the costs of college, support students holistically, strengthen partnerships and create career pathways, and use data to drive equity and outcomes.

For more Making College Work updates and information on this initiative and related efforts, follow our Making College Work Campaign to receive the newsletter and updates.

For more information about this initiative, please contact: Kate Kinder