Members of the PCC team attend the 2023 SHEEO Conference. From L-R: Danielle Stanley, Christian Perry, Caitlin Power

In early August, three PCC team members traveled to Denver to attend the 2023 edition of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) Conference. The conference highlighted crucial issues and policy considerations states must address to build and sustain excellent systems of higher education. Attendees included a record-breaking number of registrants, including SHEEO state agency executives, leaders from national higher education policy organizations, institutions, state and federal government, and vendors.

Christian Perry (Director of Policy & Advocacy), Danielle Stanley (Government Affairs Manager) and Caitlin Power (Policy Analyst) share some of their learnings from the conference.

What was the most thought-provoking session?

Christian: I have two that really stood out for me. The “Divisive Concepts, Politicization, and the Imperative to Communicate Clearly” session talked a lot about the importance of issue framing. Debra Humphreys did a really good job sharing research on where the conversation is and how to engage to help move people along a track that aligns with equity. Roughly 60 percent of the population agrees that our institutions do not offer opportunities to all residents equally. After that, it becomes about how you’re speaking about the issues, who the messenger is, and how clearly you communicate the desired destination. 

The second was “America’s Hidden common Ground on Higher Education,” where PCC board member, Wil Del Pilar, was on the panel. They talked a lot about how higher education needs to get better explaining the value proposition of college in a way that isn’t defensive but compassionate and understanding of the growing opposition. They also spoke about the reality of windows of opportunity that open nationally and in the individual states depending on who’s elected. That was timely for us because at PCC, we talk often about the unique window of opportunity we have with allies at virtually every level of government in Illinois. I agree very strongly with the idea that there’s more that brings us together when it comes to the promise of Higher Ed than what separates us. 

Caitlin: Several sessions, like “Reconnecting Adults with Higher Education,” and Tuesday’s keynote, “State Approaches to the Enrollment Crisis,” challenged attendees to look beyond recent high school graduates as their primary recruitment pool and focus on adult learners and students with some college experience but no degree. Speakers highlighted the equity implications of engaging or re-engaging these students, as students of color and low-income students are more likely to drop out of college or not enroll right out of high school. These sessions also emphasized the need for different campus structures, supports, marketing, and recruitment practices targeted towards adult students.

In our Affirmative Action Report, we encourage institutions to be conscious of what high school tiers they recruit from. Institutions should also explore building their recruitment and support infrastructure to engage adult students or bring back students who stopped out.

What are some key learnings you’re excited to implement in your PCC work?

Danielle: The SHEEO breakout sessions centered their work around disaggregated data. Without data collected from state agencies and public universities, it will be challenging to address the racial inequities in higher education. I look forward to examining what data sets we need to address the systemic issues to accessing and completing college by race and geography.

Caitlin: Many states represented at the conference, like Indiana, Texas, and Pennsylvania, recently revisited how they fund their public colleges and universities. Most of these states have adopted some mixture of outcomes-based funding, where funding is tied to an institution’s performance relative to previous years or other institutions, and enrollment-based funding, where funding is tied to the number of full-time students enrolled. Although Illinois is pursuing a distinct approach in adequacy-based funding, where funding is tied to what institutions need to enroll and serve different populations of students, other states offered important insights into some of the legislative challenges they faced trying to get their formulas passed and funded. Pennsylvania, for example, mentioned that having a simple, easy to understand formula was critical in building transparency and trust with state legislators and the public. Ohio found that their formula initially legitimized their community college funding system which led to increased funding, but cautioned that momentum slowed because it was difficult to communicate results of the state’s investment to legislators.

These learnings have important implications for Illinois, as the SB815 Commission discusses recommendations for the formula and considers how institutions will be held accountable to equitably enrolling and serving students of color and low income Illinoisans.

Did you experience any “ah ha” moments?

Christian: My key take away from this conference could also serve as my “ah ha” moment. I was unaware that the higher education space was somewhat in denial about how overtly politically partisan the attacks have been on higher education. This conference felt like it was screaming, “Wake up and get in the fight!” Not just with the data and research you’re doing but also with your advocacy. Start the campaign, ignite folks from different sectors, and realize we have tools that can change the tenor of the conversation. That’s what I’m most excited to start doing at the Partnership in hopes that in years to come Illinois will serve as an example on how to effectively organize and advocate for justice & equity in higher education.

Danielle: Higher education practitioners cannot address systemic inequities without our K-12 partners. Returning from SHEEO, I am interested in working alongside  K-12 school districts and bridge programs to educate parents on funding higher education. Continued investment in K-12, wrap-around services, and bridge programs will expand Illinois’s local talent pool for college admission. Investing early in our future college students will set them up for completing college and career bound within five years.