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5 experts weigh in on the state of higher education equity

February 3, 2020

Higher education has a well-documented equity gap problem. Countless studies show that colleges graduate low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color at lower rates than their peers from majority populations.

The population of incoming college students will only become more diverse. Researchers forecast that students of color, especially Hispanic students, will continue to grow as a share of the student population. Forward-looking student success strategies must include measures for supporting the increasing number of underserved students and closing equity gaps on campus.

We asked several equity experts at EAB to weigh in on topics like innovative student success strategies and how to create a culture of equity. Their responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Equity Gap

Equity gaps refer to disparities in educational outcomes and student success metrics across race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, physical or mental abilities, and other demographic traits and intersectionalities.

These gaps often signal that current practices and procedures are not effectively supporting all student groups.

What equity gap means

Why are you no longer using the term ‘achievement gap’? And when you talk about equity gaps, what do you mean and why is it a better term?

“Achievement gap” implies that the onus for the outcome disparity is on the student. That is, they failed to achieve something, and therefore, there’s a gap. “Equity gap,” on the other hand, means any disparity in a metric, like graduation rate or term-to-term persistence, along racial, socioeconomic, gender, or other major demographic groupings. Instead of, “what did the student do wrong?” we’re working together with our partner institutions to ask, “what processes, policies, strategies, etc. did the institution put in place that created or exacerbated these disparities by race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.?”

Greater equity in education includes a few elements. First, are we giving students, regardless of race, socioeconomic background, gender, etc., an equal chance to succeed on our campus? That’s not just letting them in. That’s making sure we have the right supports in place and we remove barriers to their full participation in the educational experience.

Second, we must commit to scrutinizing our policies and practices to find sources of disenfranchisement and even discrimination affecting some demographic groups more than others. On a positive note, a lot of our partner institutions have made investments in training and development to help leaders, faculty, and staff understand the causes of equity gaps, their own biases, and the potential solutions.

What surprised you during your dive back into the past decade of EAB’s student success research for the Student Success Playbook?

When we started our student success research, we studied discrete parts of student success and found practices that could help solve those individual problems. But I was surprised by how much connective tissue we have built across the practices. We now know much more about how practices build on each other to create a more holistic student success and education equity strategy.

Thanks to our research and technology teams and the incredible generosity of our partners in sharing their insights, we can now help institutions from start to finish on many different student success challenges. I’m excited to see how our knowledge evolves across the next decade, especially as we intensify our focus on equity in student success.

How community colleges close equity gaps

What can community colleges teach four-year institutions about an equity-based approach to student success?

Community colleges’ wholehearted embrace of Guided Pathway reform has brought a much-needed institution-wide approach to student success for all students. Community college leaders and staff exude a willingness to disrupt outdated program pathways, pedagogy, policies, and procedures for their students.

An equity-based approach requires fundamental changes in the “way we always do things” and intersects across race, gender, and income lines. This approach can shed light on the structural and systemic approaches that have hindered the progress of Native, black, and Latinx students. At community colleges that meant providing flexible course offerings, online student services, and emergency aid grants. Community colleges continue to evolve with their diverse student populations and show us that all students can succeed in the right environment with the right supports.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of programs and initiatives, what ingredients do institutions need to create a culture of equity on campus?

Institutions need a mindset change to create a culture of education equity. They need to move away from viewing underserved students as problems to fix and move towards viewing them as learners to cultivate. Administrators, faculty, and staff also need to use data and focus groups to reckon with the ways they may be limiting the success of students in their departments and offices. Lastly, college leaders must infuse race appropriate approaches into every aspect of their institution through their strategic plan. This includes hiring, promotion, and tenure policies that supplement the role of diversity statements. They also need to change what occurs in our classrooms to ensure our students are equipped to work in a diverse workforce-in part because they are taught by equity-minded practitioners.

The critical elements colleges need to address equity

What are the critical elements colleges need to close equity gaps?

Colleges need three elements to close equity gaps at scale. They need deeply committed leaders who know how to manage change with equity-mindedness. They need to deploy, at scale and with fidelity, proven best practices and policies for student success. And they need to deploy technology to uncover areas of friction and to sustain the changes that advance equity goals. 

At the end of the day, what matters most is having the will to do the work. Leaders must be willing to hold themselves and their institutions accountable for closing equity gaps.

What is the Moon Shot for Equity, and how does it equip leaders with the skills they need to close equity gaps?

Through the Moon Shot for Equity initiative, EAB is partnering with other national experts, philanthropies, and corporate employers to provide select regional ecosystems of two- and four-year institutions with the consulting and technological tools necessary to eliminate equity gaps by 2030. Measured and evaluated in all aspects through an equity lens, this initiative involves the collective implementation of cohesive best practices, policies, and technologies to deliver more college graduates, in less time, for less money, and with better career outcomes. It’s an unprecedented partnership to leverage the expertise of both the private and public sectors to close equity gaps within institutions and across entire regions.
The Moon Shot for Equity will provide leaders with the training they need to close equity gaps. It includes change management training from EAB and equity skill development from Shaun Harper, an expert on racial, gender, and LGBT issues in higher ed.

We’re scouring the country for leaders who are uniquely committed to closing equity gaps and who are ready to deploy student success strategies. If you’re ready to do the work, we know what needs to be done. If you’re ready to deploy the technology, we have the best in class. If you’re ready to embed equitable processes into the design of your institution, we can help you deliver it.

How technology can help colleges tackle inequity

What opportunities do you see for institutions to use data to improve education equity?

Schools have a great opportunity to work with economists to identify the most effective ways to produce economic mobility for students at scale and to use data to identify what sets their specific institutions apart. For example, Raj Chetty and John Friedman of Opportunity Insights have analyzed tax data for over 30 million students across the nation’s colleges to create a mobility scorecard. The scorecard finds that some schools-including those in the City University of New York system, the California State University system, and in the Texas ecosystem-stand out as high-mobility institutions. They outperform on dimensions of serving large numbers of low-income students and producing success.

If you could imagine what education equity initiatives could look like in 2025, what would the most innovative schools be doing?

The most innovative schools will zero in on student psychology to couple their access initiatives with more empowering student success practices. Schools will invest in programs that help students clarify their college goals; from there, they will continue to invest in advising programs coupled with student-centered technology that encourage students to make meaningful progress towards those goals, day-to-day and week-to-week.  Schools, like the most forward-thinking ones of today, will further leverage this combined motivational platform of advising and technology to reinforce students’ sense of potential via student-friendly design, messaging, and an expanded “success network.” This network would incorporate success-oriented interactions among peers as well as “champions” beyond the institution, such as alumni and prospective employers.

Why leaders struggle to close equity gaps

You’ve dedicated your professional and academic work to promoting equity in higher education. What are the biggest obstacles to closing equity gaps at institutions?

Leaders struggle to close equity gaps on campus because they’re wrestling with other competing commitments, such as state funding pressures and other fiscal demands. They are running an institution while simultaneously reinventing it, essentially building a plane while flying it. But leaders who act on equity without first reflecting on the systemic barriers at their institution might unintentionally make the situation worse or invest in a solution that doesn’t address students’ needs. To help leaders approach equity strategically, we must first create spaces for higher education leaders to reflect and think about what equity means for their institution and its stakeholders. Without this critical step, institutions can mistakenly assume that creating equity initiatives will automatically lead students to adapt and utilize services once they are created.

What do college leaders need to bring to the table to improve equity on their campuses?

The most effective way to run at equity is through empathy and adaptability. Empathy will allow one to truly understand what underserved students are facing. Through this lens, we can create effective spaces and interventions. Adaptability will allow institutions to innovate and remain agile in adjusting to students’ changing needs.

For example, it is through empathy that I changed my language of calling students “underrepresented,” to calling them “underserved.” Our minority students are here and “represented.” What lacks is our ability to “serve” said students appropriately. This shift in language can consequently shift our mindset.

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