Evidence to Action


Over the past two decades, a growing body of research has increased knowledge about what works to help students succeed in college and earn a degree. MDRC and other researchers have built evidence around programs, practices, and policies designed to support students in financial aid, developmental education, comprehensive student support programs, and other areas.

As states across the country seek solutions to increase college completion rates, close equity gaps, and develop a skilled workforce through greater postsecondary attainment, evidence from rigorous research can help inform decisions to improve outcomes for students. Yet despite the growing evidence base, it is often difficult for states and higher education systems to take full advantage of the rigorous research findings as they enact policies, make formal recommendations, or provide funding and resources to improve postsecondary outcomes while balancing other significant priorities.

In partnership with the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO), MDRC has launched Evidence to Action to understand how states use rigorous research to inform higher education decision-making at the system and state levels. MDRC and SHEEO are partnering with three states to document how various stakeholders support higher education, where evidence does or does not play a role, and what the opportunities and barriers are to the development, adoption, and implementation of evidence-based policies, programs, and practices at scale.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

MDRC and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) are working with stakeholders in each of three participating states to build a shared understanding of how the state uses evidence to make higher education policy, funding, and other decisions at the state and system levels. For each state, the team will document the landscape of state-level decision-making in higher education, what role evidence plays in that process, and the opportunities and barriers to using evidence to inform those decisions.

The project seeks to answer the following primary research questions:

  • What are the states’ key priorities for higher education, and why and how were these priorities adopted by stakeholders within the states?
  • What role has research evidence, including rigorous research, played in the development, adoption, and implementation of state- and system-level higher education policies, programs, and practices?
  • What factors have facilitated or impeded stakeholders’ use of research evidence in state- and system-level higher education decision-making?
  • What themes or lessons emerge from the three states’ experiences with the use of evidence?

MDRC will provide internal feedback to stakeholders in each participating state, will convene the three states to share lessons, and will publish a public brief synthesizing lessons learned across the states. The team also intends to pursue a second phase of the project in which we will provide technical assistance to these or other states to apply the lessons learned and to create a comprehensive approach for advancing the use of evidence in developing, adopting, and implementing higher education policies, programs, and practices at scale.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

Three states are participating in Evidence to Action: Indiana, Montana, and Virginia. The primary data collection activities are document reviews and interviews with key higher education stakeholders, including representatives from the state higher education agency, the governor’s office, the legislature, institutions of higher education, and others.

Our primary partners for the project are:

  • Indiana: Indiana Commission for Higher Education
  • Montana: Montana University System Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education
  • Virginia: State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and the Virginia Community College System