5 surprising leading indicators of student success disparities

Expert Insight

5 surprising leading indicators of student success disparities

As part of our recent research on Overcoming Barriers to Equity in Student Success, EAB catalogued leading indicators of persisting gaps in student outcomes between underrepresented students and majority students. We uncovered over 100 barriers to equitable student outcomes through literature review, research interviews, and analysis of student success data. Some of the disparities were well-known, but below we have highlighted five of the most surprising.

1. Impact of grading practices on student success

In-class disparities posed some of the most difficult problems in our research. An introspective study on building inclusive classrooms conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles in 2015 found that underrepresented students performed worse in classes with norm-referenced grading than they did in classes with mastery-based grading. Further research demonstrates that norm-referenced grading creates a competitive classroom environment, where the success of one student is at the expense of another’s, which has a disproportionately negative effect on underrepresented students. This indicates that a seemingly innocuous method to assess and compare student performance can have disparate impacts on outcomes.

2. Faculty-initiated course withdrawal

Several research interviews revealed a surprising in-class disparity resulting from policy flexibility and unconscious bias. Several institutions from our research found that some faculty were more likely to drop students of color than white students from their courses for the same number of absences. While such policies are meant to hold students accountable, academic leaders must monitor their unintended consequences on equity and inclusion.

3. Faculty responses to student comments on discussion boards

Another instance where biases can lead to unequal outcomes is in faculty-student communication. A recent study conducted by the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford University found that instructors of online courses were nearly twice as likely to respond to comments from white male students than to those by any other student group. This study analyzed discussion posts from 124 MOOCs across numerous disciplines by randomly creating and assigning fictional student accounts with racially coded and gendered names to each course. They found that, overall, instructors responded to 7% of student comments. However, the instructor response rate for white men was 12%. This can impact underrepresented student outcomes since faculty-student interactions are positively related to improved GPAs, plans for graduate study, and feeling connected and committed to the broader institution. As noted by the authors, these results are particularly striking as more students continue to take online and hybrid courses.

4. Effect of parental expectations on academic perseverance

As we know, students aren’t the only ones shaping their educational experience; their interactions with their family, teachers, and broader community can influence their performance. Research indicates that high parental expectations can be linked to better academic performance. However, these expectations are not equal across identity groups. For example, only 47.9% of parents with a household income of $25,000 or less expect their child to attain a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Whereas 77% of parents with a household income greater than $75,000 expect their child to attain a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Given the linkages between parental expectations and student persistence, this expectation gap can have serious consequences for underrepresented student degree attainment.

5. Impact of student self-efficacy on first-year course grades

Students’ self-expectation often mirrors parental expectations. Research conducted out of Washington University in St. Louis’ Center for Social Development suggests that low-income students are less likely than their high-income counterparts to aspire to attend college. And, like their parents, low-income students also hold significantly lower expectations that they will actually attend college. This self-confidence, or lack thereof, can have serious implications for a student’s academic success. Hispanic students are twice as likely as comparable students to require academic remediation if they lack academic self-confidence. Similarly, Black students who lack college-going self-confidence are 20% less likely than their white peers to enroll in college.

What’s next?

While not all these disparities and their causes are within an institution’s control, higher education leaders can often mitigate their impact on student outcomes. To learn more about how you can best support underrepresented students on your campus, check out our summer webconference series on Overcoming Barriers to Equity in Student Success.

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