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  • The Attainment Agenda: State Policy Leadership in Higher Education by Laura W. Perna and Jonni E. Finney
  • Stella M. Flores, Associate Professor of Higher Education
Laura W. Perna and Jonni E. Finney. The Attainment Agenda: State Policy Leadership in Higher Education. Baltimore, John Hopkins Press, 2014. 328 pp. Hardcover: $49.95. ISBN: 9781421414065.

Two debates have recently framed the issue of postsecondary attainment in the United States. The first is that of rising college costs. Few other higher education issues seem to stir as much public interest as the rising cost of college. Factors such as a decline in state support for public higher education, inflation, and the consequences of carrying large student loans create concern and mistrust in the value of higher education. The second is the payoff, particularly in regard to wages, to completing a postsecondary degree. Although relative wage differentials for workers with a bachelor’s degree or better have declined, college graduates can still expect to earn almost twice as much as their non-college-educated counterparts—nearly $1.6M over a lifetime; those with an associate’s degree or some college are likely to earn 26 percent more than high school graduates (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010). A third debate, however, has increasingly entered the public discourse—that of growing inequality by race and class in the United States. Inequality, however uncomfortable, is real and profoundly integrated into the issues of cost and returns to higher education in the U.S.

The Attainment Agenda: State Policy Leadership in Higher Education offers a large- scale assessment of why the goal of increasing postsecondary attainment rates will benefit not only individuals and states but the entire nation. Authors Laura W. Perna and Joni E. Finney, along with their contributors (Michael Armijo, Awilda Rodriguez, and Jamey Rorison) are clear about the steps the U.S. will need to take to regain its place in the hierarchy of educated nations. An example of this sentiment is captured in the foreword summarizing the analyses by Patrick M. Callan where he states: “It is now mathematically impossible for the nation and for most states . . . to achieve an internationally competitive workforce unless historically underserved low-income and ethnic groups enroll and graduate from college in significantly greater numbers” (p. ix).

Although the numbers presented in this highly useful book may be outdated in five years, the strategies the authors used to assess the strengths and challenges of the various state policy contexts will maintain their integrity and use for many years to come. The strategies are delicately constructed and theoretically sound with a multidisciplinary assessment on the role and effect of state policy on educational outcomes to date (see chapter 2). Perna and Finney astutely illuminate the policy mechanisms related to educational and economic progress, or lack thereof, by state context and set a foundation for how to think through future analyses of each state for those engaging in similar questions but different methodologies. Their work presents evidence-based state portraits that are helpful in understanding, or at least hypothesizing, why some interventions have been successful when others have not. They also identify factors that guide the development and adoption of various public policies by each state context. It becomes easier to understand why some higher education state policies may have been adopted in Maryland but not Washington or why states with similar issues decide on drastically different approaches to state policy.

The idea that state context matters in the status of higher education attainment is presented through a case study of five states—Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Texas, and Washington. These state portraits provide a sense of what future interventions will likely need to include if we are to see any real progress in college success but also in the reduction of inequality among a state’s population. The case studies, in which federal partnerships play some role, help to persuade the reader that we must pay attention to state history, leadership, and projected population changes.

The authors begin with a twofold argument: (1) that the greatest challenges facing U.S. higher education are to improve postsecondary education performance rates (i.e., preparation for, enrollment in, and completion of college) and to reduce...


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