Conceptualizing State Policy Adoption and Diffusion

  • James C. HearnEmail author
  • Michael K. McLendon
  • Kristen C. Linthicum
Part of the Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research book series (HATR, volume 32)


Since the 1980s, the U.S. states have adopted numerous new postsecondary-education policies, spanning the range from student-directed initiatives in merit scholarships and college-savings plans to institution-focused initiatives in performance-based funding and targeted researcher recruitment. In recent years, higher-education researchers have begun aggressively examining not only the effects of these new policies but also their origins in the fifty states. This essay reviews earlier research on policy adoption in political science, sociology, and other fields, then presents a conceptual framework for understanding and investigating the contextual factors driving state actions in the higher-education arena. The framework identifies four major domains of influence: a state’s socioeconomic context, organizational and policy context, politico-institutional context, and policy diffusion context. Research literature on these influences is reviewed, with special attention to developing theoretical propositions regarding the influences of specific factors under particular contextual conditions. The essay reviews emerging developments in policy-adoption scholarship in varied disciplines, then closes with a discussion of promising areas for future higher-education adoption scholarship.


Funding Governance Policy Politics Policy diffusion State policy 



This research was supported in part by a research grant to the first author from the W.T. Grant Foundation. The authors gratefully acknowledge Will Doyle, Austin Lacy, and Erik Ness - recent discussions with these colleagues greatly enriched our perspectives on the topic of this chapter. We also thank the many who have collaborated with the first two authors over the years in research on state policy adoption, including the three above plus Melissa Anderson, Laura Cohen-Vogel, Russ Deaton, Carolyn Griswold, Don Heller, Nick Hillman, Ginger Marine, Stephanie Lee, Aaron Levine, Christine Mokher, Laura Perna, David Tandberg, John Wachen, Jarrett Warshaw, and Steven Young.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • James C. Hearn
    • 1
    Email author
  • Michael K. McLendon
    • 2
  • Kristen C. Linthicum
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute of Higher Education, Meigs HallUniversity of GeorgiaAthensUSA
  2. 2.School of EducationBaylor University, One Bear PlaceWacoUSA

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