Using Statewide Learning Agendas to Foster Equity and Success in Postsecondary Education

By Kate Tromble, Katie Beal

Implications for policy and practice:

  1. Create a learning agenda to answer questions about student equity and success that are aligned with the state’s priorities for higher education. A learning agenda is an outline of a state’s research priorities. In it, a state can identify gaps in knowledge about what works to increase equitable outcomes for students and craft priority research questions to answer based on those gaps.
  2. Invest in staff capabilities, research, and data systems to execute the learning agenda. States should build robust postsecondary-research and performance-management teams to support evidence-based decision-making that aligns policies and practices with the state's postsecondary education goals. Doing so will require sustained investments.
  3. Use the learning agenda to direct funding toward research-based strategies for student equity and success. States should incorporate data and evidence-based decision-making into existing policy and budgeting processes. The data and evidence generated from the learning agenda can help decision makers invest in programs and policies that are more equitable and likely to help states meet their postsecondary goals. They can also help state policymakers identify and divert funding from programs that are not achieving their intended outcomes.

The postsecondary education landscape has changed dramatically since the onset of COVID-19. The pandemic has demanded innovation and adjustments from states, colleges, and students in the face of great hardship. It has also exacerbated longstanding disparities in postsecondary participation. Moreover, the pandemic led the federal government to act, providing billions of dollars in recovery funding to colleges and state and local governments. With stronger-than-expected fiscal conditions, states have provided additional funding for higher education. These investments provide an opportunity for states, systems, and colleges both to implement proven strategies for increasing equitable outcomes and to test new strategies about what works to support students through college to completion.

Although the postsecondary education evidence base has increased greatly in recent decades, there is still much to learn, particularly regarding how best to support students who have historically been underserved by higher education. In addition, programs and policies backed by strong data and evidence benefit from ongoing evaluation and program improvements, especially when implemented in new locations and adapted for different populations of students. This brief discusses how a state can use a learning agenda to direct investments toward proven interventions and foster equitable student success.

Develop a learning agenda and use it to answer questions aligned with state higher education priorities.

As states and the federal government increasingly emphasize data and evidence in decision-making, learning agendas have emerged as a tool to coordinate research activities and generate knowledge that informs policy and practice. States can use learning agendas aligned with their priorities to help them better manage the performance of their programs, ensure those programs are actually helping people, and decide where to direct resources. Several states already have adopted learning agendas aligned with gubernatorial priorities and goals. As a result, several resources and templates exist that state higher education agencies can use to develop their own learning agendas aligned with their state goals for equity and postsecondary success. Common steps identified by these resources include:

  1. Convening a diverse group of people to contribute to the learning agenda. These people might include representatives from multiple positions of the state’s higher education agency or governing board, the governor’s office, the state legislature, college systems, and individual colleges. It is also important to include community members, students, parents, faculty members, support staff members, and others who may have experiences interacting with the postsecondary system and perspectives that are not captured by policymakers and state leaders. These individuals and organizations are often directly affected by program and policy decisions and therefore should have a voice in identifying questions that might guide future decisions. See Box 1 for additional strategies for putting equity at the forefront of the development and implementation of learning agendas.
  2. Developing questions based on statewide priorities for higher education. The framework for a state’s postsecondary learning agenda should be developed using the state’s higher education strategic plan and governor’s priorities as a starting point. Those priorities tend to be broad, but they can be narrowed into specific questions. For example, an overall priority might be to increase college completion rates by 2030. Some specific questions related to that priority might be which types of advanced high school courses (advanced placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual enrollment) best prepare students for success in college, and which students do (and do not) have access to those course offerings and why. Learning-agenda questions can also be used to answer questions about policy changes that have already been enacted. For example, an important question in states that require students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to graduate from high school might be how that requirement affects college enrollment levels, the types of schools students enroll in, and how well colleges retain historically marginalized students such as undocumented students and students of color.
  3. Determining a plan and timeline for answering high-priority learning questions. A learning agenda that only covers a short time period probably will not be particularly robust given budget cycles, the time it takes to gather meaningful contributions from representatives of various groups, and the need to issue requests for proposals if the research will be conducted by outside entities under contract. Crafting a learning agenda that covers multiple years also offers a state higher education agency the opportunity to use research results to inform programs, make changes, redirect funds, and collaborate with other parties to identify new research questions to answer.

    In addition, the learning agenda should identify which research or analysis methods should be used to answer each question and who will be responsible for carrying out the research. The appropriate research method depends on the question being asked. For example, qualitative research methods such as focus groups and interviews can provide information on the experiences of specific student populations and communities, while experimental studies can answer whether a program is achieving its intended goals (such as higher graduation rates for historically marginalized students).

    Further, the plan should identify data assets and needs. Each state has a different structure for collecting, maintaining, and governing postsecondary data; in most states, though, data are governed in some part by institutions of higher education and in some part by a state higher education agency. A learning agenda can be used to open a discussion among these entities about ways to safely increase the sharing of useful, not personally identifiable data that is broken down by student characteristics of interest to policymakers. Moreover, a learning agenda could lead to a thoughtful conversation among other partners—such as the state K-12 education and workforce agencies—about the value of a more integrated state data system, if one does not currently exist.


Strategies for putting equity at the center of the learning-agenda process:

  • Seek the contributions of a diverse group of people—including representatives from colleges at various levels, students, K-12 leaders, and community members—to develop the learning agenda.
  • Make a priority of questions and associated research activities that focus on increasing equity for historically marginalized student populations.
  • Emphasize the experiences and perspectives of historically marginalized student populations in the development of the learning agenda and the design of research activities.
  • Disaggregate data by important student characteristics such as race and ethnicity, income, and gender to identify disparities in student outcomes.
  • Include subgroup analyses in rigorous studies to help answer questions about the impact of different strategies on various student populations.

Invest in staff capabilities, research, technology, and data systems to execute the learning agenda.

Creating an infrastructure for the ongoing learning, data analytics, and evidence-based decision-making necessary to develop and execute a learning agenda is not a simple endeavor. It requires staff members who have the expertise and time to understand data and evidence and conduct research, robust higher education agency data systems that are integrated with other state data systems, and sustained financial resources. States can build staff capabilities by providing training and professional development and by connecting staff members with networks of researchers and professional associations for technical assistance. Additionally, states can partner with local academics or external researchers to supplement their research capabilities. For example, the Virginia Community College System has developed long-term relationships with several external research partners and often works with them to rigorously evaluate programs that have shown promise in the college system’s own analyses.

One funding source that states can draw on to support these activities is the American Rescue Plan’s State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program. Program guidance issued by the Treasury Department  encourages recipients to invest in data, research, and evaluation capabilities as well as evidence-based strategies. This funding is limited—it must be committed by 2024 and used by 2026—but it offers states the chance to make large, immediate investments to increase both their human and technological capabilities in ways they could sustain in the future through a combination of state, federal, and philanthropic funds.

Use the learning agenda to guide investments in equity and student success strategies.

States should regularly review the findings from research activities with representatives of a variety of interests to increase shared knowledge and support for effective practices. States also can promote the use of data, research, and evidence in routine policy and budget processes by directing resources toward strategies shown to advance equity and student success. In Minnesota’s annual budget process, for example, the governor makes a priority of including state agency requests for funding that are backed by data. Each state agency must complete a form that describes the supporting research behind its budget proposal. Several other states also have taken systematic steps to increase the use of evidence in higher education policy and budget decisions.

Additional Resources:


Kate Tromble is director of the Data Champions Collaborative at the Data Quality Campaign. Her work focuses on helping policymakers understand the role data and evidence can play in supporting people along their postsecondary and workforce journeys.

Katie Beal is an associate at MDRC. Her work focuses on helping state policymakers and institutions of higher education adopt and implement evidence-based student success reforms.