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Research Report

5 surprising leading indicators of student success disparities

February 27, 2019

As part of our commitment to promoting equity in student outcomes, 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 a literature review, research interviews, and analysis of student success data. Some of the disparities were well-known. However, we wanted to highlight five that might surprise academic leaders and inspire change on campus.

1. Impact of grading practices on student success

In-class disparities posed some of the most difficult problems in our research. Many instructors and departments, especially in STEM fields, prefer norm-referenced grading (or grading on a curve) to help standardize grades, particularly across large courses with multiple sections and graders. However, the student success effects of such grading policies aren’t demographic neutral.

More on this topic

This resource is part of the Improve Student Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Roadmap. Access the Roadmap for stepwise guidance with additional tools and research.

An introspective study on building inclusive classrooms conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles in 2015 found that traditionally underrepresented students, such as women, students of color, and Pell grant recipients, performed worse in classes with norm-referenced grading than they did in classes with mastery-based grading. Considering EAB’s research on the importance of critical introductory course performance, disparities like these can signal significant persistence problems in the future.

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 traditionally underrepresented students already struggling with a sense of belonging. This indicates that a seemingly innocuous method to assess and compare student performance can have disparate impacts on outcomes.

2. Impact of bursar holds on registration

The unintended consequences of institutional policies and procedures were another important aspect of our research. While academic leaders are familiar with how restrictive bursar holds for small outstanding balances create a punitive roadblock to graduation, many are unaware of the equity implications of such policies. Analysis conducted through EAB’s Navigate technology found that underrepresented students are impacted by such financial holds more frequently and with greater intensity than their majority peers.


Black and 29% Latinx first-year students and sophomores had 6-10 holds on their account
Black and 29% Latinx first-year students and sophomores had 6-10 holds on their account

For example, one institution found that 32% of black and 29% of Latinx first-year students and sophomores had 6-10 holds on their account and another 18% and 10%, respectively, had more than eleven. In contrast to this, only 26% of white first-year students and sophomores had 6-10 holds and only about 6% had more than eleven. While such policies are meant to hold students accountable, they can be a barrier to persistence and equity as well as cause institutions to senselessly lose enrollment over very small amounts of money.

3. Experience of basic needs insecurity

Many interviewees stressed the importance of student basic needs insecurity in our research conversations. While the prevalence of food and housing insecure students on campuses is an equity concern in and of itself, particular attention needs to be paid to how this experience compounds other inequities.

Research shows that 64% of food insecure students (at both two-year and four-year institutions) also experience housing insecurity.

The demographic breakdown of these students is particularly striking. An analysis conducted by the Urban Institute found that between 2011 and 2015, 16% of Latinx and 18% of black students at four-year institutions experienced food insecurity compared to only 9% of their white peers. Similarly, one study of five Canadian institutions found that 39% of students experienced some level of food insecurity. However, a closer look at the demographics of these students found that 56% of Aboriginal and Indigenous students experienced moderate to severe food insecurity at these institutions.

Given the prevalence of basic needs insecurity on college campuses it is increasingly important for institutions to provide and connect students with relevant support services on campus and in their communities. Many institutions have begun creating food pantries or dining hall meal plan donation programs to help students struggling to find their next meal. If that practice is not possible, leaders may want to consider establishing stronger partnerships with local service providers and help students gain access to public benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

4. Effect of negative diversity event on academic performance

Despite the growing emphasis on campus climate there is little research exploring its academic impact. One such study looked at the impact of a negative “diversity” event on student learning. The researchers found that that although more students report having positive experiences due to the diversity of their campus, negative experiences are still common and can impair student learning and cognitive development.

More specifically, in a sample of over 2,500 students at four-year institutions, 43% of black, 37% of Latinx, and 40% of Asian students reported having a “high” number of negative diversity interactions compared to only 25% of their white peers. These negative diversity events include instances when students felt insulted or threatened based on their racial, ethnic or gender identity or when they felt their ideas and opinions were shut down due to prejudice and discrimination. These experiences had a negative effect on cognitive and critical thinking skills for all students, based on student performance on ACT developed Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency test and researcher-developed need-for-cognition measures. As suggested by the lead author of the study, Josipa Roksa, this research demonstrates the growing need for campus leaders “to engage diversity on a deeper level — not just by admitting diverse student bodies but by helping students embrace and benefit from diversity.”

5. Impact of developmental and remedial math requirements


Of students enrolled in remediation complete the introductory course
Of students enrolled in remediation complete the introductory course

An often-cited student success concern is a lack of academic preparation, especially in math, among incoming first-year students. In order to address this concern, many colleges and universities offer remedial education. However, research indicates that only 36% of students enrolled in remediation complete the associated introductory course.

Moreover, only 17% of students enrolled in remedial education go on to graduate. There is clearly a need for other models of developmental education, such as corequisite education, for all students. However, there is also a broader equity imperative to change remedial math requirements. Analysis by Complete College America indicates underrepresented students are overrepresented in remedial education. At four-year institutions 27% of Latinx students, 37% of black students, and 30% of Pell recipients are enrolled in remedial math (compared to 24% all students and 19% of white students).  

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 identify and address achievement gaps on your campus review our collection of over 100 leading indicators of demographic disparities in common student success metrics with our Barriers to Student Success Infographic and accompanying Implementation Planning Guide.