Helping Students Persist and Graduate: Brittany Motley

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Equity gaps as a symptom, not the disease

Brittany Motley, Ph.D. Moon Shot Principal Consultant

An equity gap is not the problem. It is typically the symptom of the problem: the problem of systemic oppression that is rooted in a sociohistorical context. We cannot talk about racial gaps in college degree attainment without talking about the residue that systemic oppression has left on higher education. Specifically, the longstanding history of school segregation, the legacy of redlining, and the impact of mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline.

The disparities in our education outcomes are a direct extension of how racism, enshrined in our laws and institutions, persist into the present. If we are to close equity gaps in postsecondary education, we must understand these sociohistorical contexts.

This is why our work as part of the Moon Shot for Equity approaches regions as opposed to institutions. We must listen to, understand, and partner with communities. They are a microcosm of the larger societal dynamics at play.

Examining Our Own Blind Spots

When leaders sign on to the Moon Shot Memorandum of Understanding, we ask them to see with clear eyes how they, and their institutions, operate within these systems. They should not view reforms as just process or policy improvements, but as addressing and repairing a history of harm.

For example, with hold reform, we’re not just asking you to audit the variety of holds that departments across campus issue to require action from students, we’re asking you to think about how financial holds impact your low-income students. Bursar holds reinforce this student’s social identity, constantly reminding them they don’t have the funds to belong at your institution. So how do we reform the language around hold resolution to make those students candidates for micro-grants, or to ensure these students see these as an opportunity to learn financial literacy rather than punishment for their social identity?

Fostering a Sense of Belonging

Above all else, we must ensure that our students feel like they belong.

Our students who come from underserved communities are suffering from impostor syndrome and survivor’s remorse: they don’t believe they belong where they’re going, but they know that their dreams and aspirations make it so that they no longer belong where they come from.

Imagine the displacement these students feel. We must empower them, and to do that we must empower the staff that serve them as well. They need access to a coordinated care network so that students are not forced to tell their story again and again—that can be retraumatizing. Students should only need to go to one person that they trust, and that person should be able to navigate efficient processes on campus to get this student holistic care.

  • McNair, T. B., Bensimon, E. M., & Malcom-Piqueux, L. (2020). From equity talk to equity walk: Expanding practitioner knowledge for racial justice in higher education. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Steele, C. M. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do. WW Norton & Company.
  • Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury publishing USA.
  • Witham, K., Malcom-Piqueux, L. E., Dowd, A. C., Bensimon, E. M., Schneider, C. G., & McNair, T. America’s Unmet Promise: The Imperative for Equity in Higher Education (Working Title).
  • Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2015). Step up & lead for equity: What higher education can do to reverse our deepening divides. ERIC Clearinghouse.
  • Making Excellence Inclusive
  • 15 Best Practices to Erase Equity Gaps

Moon Shot for Equity

Our ambition is to close equity gaps in higher education by 2030. Discover how EAB is working with the community and partner organizations to help more Americans complete college degrees and credentials of value

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