Promising Policy: Driving Better Outcomes and Equity in Education

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A New Series from HCM Strategists

HCM Strategists recently embarked on our second decade of work to help clients define and advance effective education and health care policies that serve the people who stand to benefit the most. We founded our firm on the belief that everyone deserves access to high-quality education and health care systems – and though “equity” has become a buzzword, we still believe it is our job to drive policies that improve the lives of the vulnerable by giving them a fair chance to thrive.

We’ve had a front row seat to the adoption and evolution of dozens of policies and, through our work with leaders and stakeholders, we’ve been reminded that policy-making is not a static process, but rather is in perpetual motion. Policy work requires dedication and an understanding that in many ways, passage of a promising policy is only the beginning –continuous care and feeding is a part of the deal to ensure smart implementation and derive the intended benefits.

This year, HCM will produce a series of papers that aims to lift the lid on how promising policies are developed and implemented – an examination of the secret sauce that can mean the difference between a policy that drives outcomes and has staying power and one that fails to deliver. The series will explore the life cycle of a policy as well as state education policies that have been implemented well or poorly through the lens of topics such as dual enrollment and outcomes-based funding. Most importantly, we’ll examine why promising policy matters.

Too often, we’ve watched states advance a promising policy, only to then fall back and lose momentum. Well-intentioned policies often falter or disappear altogether. Why does this happen and how can it be prevented? We see this as a failure to understand the continuous nature of the policy life cycle.

The phases of policymaking  — development, implementation, evaluation and revision  —  operate within a continuous loop. These phases are depicted below along with key questions relevant to each:

  • Development: A problem or area for improvement has been identified, and a policy solution has been formulated
    • What is the problem we are trying to solve?
    • What solutions have been suggested and how can these be shaped into good policy?
    • What research or evidence points to the best policy solutions?
    • Which leaders and stakeholders must be involved in this process?
  • Implementation: Following adoption, initial steps are taken to begin the new policy
    • Is the policy being implemented as intended?
    • Have any unforeseen implementation challenges or consequences arisen?
    • Are the people the policy is intending to serve voicing any concerns about implementation?
  • Evaluation: Once the policy has been scaled and tested, policymakers and experts in the field assess effectiveness and explore improvements based on lessons learned and research findings
    • Is the policy producing the desired outcomes?
    • Should further development be done to improve the policy?
  • Revision: When consensus exists that a policy has been successful but should evolve, refinements are made to further increase effectiveness
    • What refinements can be made to improve outcomes?
    • Is there a better way to evaluate the outcomes?


The policy life cycle can be driven from the state- or system-level down or from the institutional level up to the system or state. The top-down approach often reflects the priorities of state leaders and can create incentives for change and scale at institutions. The bottom-up approach usually is initiated by institution leaders and often is seeded by pilot-focused investments that can inform the state- or system-level policies needed to bring improvements to scale. However it is initiated and expanded, good policy evolves to reflect the ever-changing nature of growth and progress.

Promising Policy for Postsecondary Progress Toward Better Outcomes and Equity

Promoting access and success in postsecondary education is a key way that people, regions, states and the nation can move ahead to close equity gaps and drive economic prosperity. Yet, achieving this success requires a shift in how the postsecondary system serves students. Currently, many policies and structures are designed to meet the needs of traditionalstudents and too often fail to address the needs of today’s students, many of whom are working, raising a family, over the age of 25 and/or racially and socioeconomically diverse.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that in just two years, two-thirds of all jobs will require some training, a credential or a degree beyond a high school diploma.[*] The sad fact is that less than half of Americans currently have the training necessary for the new economy. What’s more, significant educational achievement gaps persist between whites and minority populations, which are quickly growing into the new majority. On the whole, our postsecondary systems have simply not served these students well, putting them at a major economic disadvantage in the coming years. Our recent blog post, “The Equity Imperative,” provides more detail on these challenges and opportunities.

Policy can break down barriers for minority and low-income students. Specifically, policies in three core areas—student-centered pathways, strategic funding and data-driven leadership—can create the conditions in which institutions can scale critical reforms, and connections can be made across K-12, postsecondary and the workforce to provide opportunities for all students. Our “Promising Policy” series will explore each of these areas in the coming months.


Student-Centered Pathways: A student-centered pathway is a clearly defined roadmap that allows a student to move quickly to and through their postsecondary journey and overcome barriers to degree completion. Strong transfer/articulation and remediation policies lay the foundation for the success of all other important student-centered reforms, such as dual enrollment, guided pathways, math pathways and digital learning. Many of these policies and pathways require the engagement of K–12 leaders and stakeholders to ensure alignment and smooth transitions.


Strategic Finance: Postsecondary finance and student financial aid are the most direct levers for policymakers to influence postsecondary policy. Investments in students should direct resources to low-income students and account for financial needs beyond tuition and fees. Investments in postsecondary institutions should support access and success for students from underserved populations and incentivize institutions to scale proven reforms and strategies that advance student outcomes. State efforts to implement funding strategies that advance core objectives of student access, success and equity are evaluated in HCM’s annual report, Driving Better Outcomes: Typologies and Principles to Inform Outcomes-Based Funding Models. This report, first released in 2015 with an update forthcoming in 2019, analyzes state policies based on research and practice-informed principles.


Data-Driven Leadership: Data that is comprehensive, transparent and accessible allows for the evidence-based decision-making we should all demand from our policymakers. States with comprehensive data systems and strong policies related to data use, inventory and privacy hold an advantage over states who do not have these things in place.





Learn More: Promising Policy: Driving Better Outcomes and Equity in Education

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