How to Build a Sustainable Model for Student Equity and Increase Student Success


How to Build a Sustainable Model for Student Equity and Increase Student Success

The pandemic and widespread civil unrest of 2020 forced institutions to acknowledge the impact new learning environments and sociocultural issues have on students. With this in mind, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte decided to evaluate its institutional policies through an equity lens using EAB’s 360-Degree Student Equity Audit. UNC Charlotte reviewed both written and unwritten policies, such as course sequences and how and when to declare a major, identifying barriers to their students’ success. Through their review, they found one in 10 institutional policies were inequitable and codified unwritten rules to provide more transparency for students. Additionally, UNC Charlotte adapted EAB’s institution-level equity audit framework to create their own annual health check of department-level practices. This will hold departments accountable for reviewing policies through an equity lens and keeping student equity an active priority.

I spoke with Dr. Leslie Zenk, Assistant Provost, and Dr. Lisa Walker, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of University College, to learn more about how they audited their policies using EAB’s framework. Read below for highlights from the discussion about how they created an evergreen model for equity at UNC Charlotte.

Like many institutions, UNC Charlotte was affected by the complex social and political events over the last few years. Were there any other reasons that pushed you to complete this audit?

Dr. Lisa Walker: We really wanted to audit our institutional and departmental policies through an equity lens, as the pandemic and recent sociocultural events affect our daily lives. We noticed not all of our students were able to dedicate the same energy to their education. By conducting an institutional policy audit, we wanted to acknowledge that our environments have an impact on students’ learning abilities. Right around this time, EAB released its 360-Degree Student Equity Audit tool, and we realized it would be the perfect framework to guide our policy review. The toolkit made it much easier to communicate what we were trying to accomplish and allowed us to think about the various levels of equity and impact.

Beyond mitigating barriers to student success and understanding the holistic student, what were your goals for the initial student equity audit?

Dr. Leslie Zenk: We wanted to create a working group to make sure our policy audit considered various stakeholders when updating our institutional policies. Our equity audit working group examined our institutional policies and their differential impacts on students. It consists of faculty, undergraduate, and graduate student subcommittees to fully capture a university-wide lens. We audited over 80 different institutional policies and procedures before beginning to tackle our department-related topics (like the unwritten rules). We identified one in 10 institutional policies as inequitable and have since updated them following the audit.  

I like how you all were able to create a personalized student equity audit for your departments. What inspired you to do this?

LZ: Despite never completing an equity audit before, we heard concerns from people about unwritten rules at the department level. Things like when to declare a major, course sequences, and hidden prerequisites weren’t specified or featured in any institutional or department calendars. This made it unfair to students. We felt confident in applying what we learned from EAB’s institution-level equity audit to our departments to improve the overall student experience.

What does short-term and long-term success look like for UNC Charlotte with this initiative?

LZ: The obvious, long-term success of this audit would be a reduction in equity gaps. However, in the short term, we really want our departments to have these equity and accessibility conversations regularly.

LW: EAB’s audit and processes served as the backbone for the department-level audits we created. It gave a good framework for how to discuss these issues and solutions and how to shift and update policies. Additionally, we were already able to codify some of the unwritten rules into formal policies with student-friendly language that is now included in our catalog.

Were there any surprising outcomes from the audit?

LZ:  One of the biggest changes we made (that we weren’t expecting) was around the classroom attendance policy. Through the audit, we clarified instructor responsibilities, what class participation looks like, and recognized that participation is different from attendance. Additionally, the policy, which we renamed as “course attendance and participation,” changes based on the course delivery and format. This is one of my favorite updates to highlight as having a real and meaningful impact on students.

LW: I really like our new registration policy. We adjusted the course change periods, like add/drop and withdrawal dates. Instead of having three different dates, which caused lots of student confusion, we used the audit to simplify and align them with the natural flow of adjustment periods, creating systemic change for students.

Interested in improving your institution’s policies and ensuring an equitable campus? Read more details about how UNC Charlotte and EAB partnered to improve student success or chat with someone from EAB.

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