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Policy actors’ perceptions of qualitative research in policymaking: the case of higher education rulemaking in the United States

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Background: As calls for evidence-based policymaking become increasingly common, qualitative research has much to offer the policy community. However, policymakers frequently evidence a preference for quantitative research. By discounting the importance of qualitative research in the policymaking process, resulting policies and their target populations miss out on the benefits that qualitative research uniquely offers.

Aims and objectives: The purpose of this study was to examine how qualitative research has been perceived and used in the US government’s rulemaking process for creating higher education regulations.

Methods: This qualitative case study included data from semi-structured interviews with 34 policy actors involved in higher education rulemaking, rulemaking documents, and research reports cited in several key higher education regulations.

Findings: Many policy actors viewed qualitative research favourably, but qualitative studies have seldom been cited in higher education rulemaking. Several respondents discussed validity concerns and some policymakers’ misunderstandings regarding qualitative methods. Moreover, storytelling can influence policy actors’ perspectives about the content of policies, and qualitative research was viewed as effective at identifying compelling stories. Thus, narratives derived from qualitative research may provide an opportunity for qualitative researchers to have their work considered in policymaking processes.

Discussion and conclusion: Qualitative research faces challenges with gaining visibility and influence in the development of regulatory policy. However, this study has shown that qualitative research has the potential to be both useful and persuasive to policymakers. Studies that discuss relevant stories may be particularly compelling.

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Keywords: education policy; higher education; qualitative research; research utilisation

Affiliations: Hofstra University, USA

Appeared or available online: December 2, 2020

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