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Improve Student Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Despite decades of focus on access to higher education and significant investment in broad student success initiatives, demographic disparities in persistence and completion remain. Unfortunately, too many academic leaders only focus on these lagging indicators of success, without recognizing the factors that contribute to racial, socioeconomic, and gender gaps in student outcomes. As a result, most initiatives are not connected to root cause drivers of the disparities. Solving the persistent problem of demographic disparities will require institutional leaders to look critically at their policies and practices and make both broad and targeted reforms.

In this Guide:

Stakeholder Education

Choose leading indicators of demographic disparities to track

Though many academic leaders understand that disparities in outcomes exist on campus, they often fail to recognize the progress metrics that reveal the root cause of these student equity and inclusion disparities. Differences in everything from self-confidence, academic preparation, financial ability, and sense of belonging can all contribute to equity gaps.

Leaders should invest in student equity and inclusion initiatives or make policy changes that address these leading indicators of demographic disparities to move the dial on lagging student outcome metrics.

Audit aid policies that hinder low-income student progress

Among all the factors that contribute to attrition, financial distress stands as the most significant. Even the perception of financial distress can make it difficult for students to navigate college and many other aspects of their lives. Many institutions solely rely on financial aid awarded during the first year, but this strategy neglects the financial emergencies that may come up later in the student lifecycle.

Emergency grants, bursar hold forgiveness, and scholarship recovery programs can reduce disparities between low-income and financially secure students.

Action Support

Redesign high-disparity gateway courses and developmental education

Performance in early courses such as developmental education or introductory requirements can signal future success for most students. Too often, these courses rely on passive, lecture-heavy teaching methods and norm-referenced grading practices.

Early demographic disparities emerge in these courses, partially due to gaps in academic self-confidence, preparation, and feelings of belonging caused by these instructional practices. Course redesigns that emphasize active, collaborative learning in an inclusive classroom improve student learning for all while closing student equity and inclusion disparities.

Decision Support

Identify and reform harmful course sequences and academic pathways

Individual courses certainly influence student outcomes, but the sequencing of those courses in general education or a major can also affect persistence, degree completion, and equity. Most curricula emerged from historical precedent rather than careful consideration of student learning goals. For example, too many students struggle to complete the algebra-to-calculus sequence despite its lack of applicability to their non-STEM majors.

Academic leaders are also increasingly concerned about demographic disparities in completions by major caused by exclusive cultures, biased entrance requirements, or lack of advising.

Action Support

Build academic confidence and preparation through pre-college transition programs

Students from different economic, racial, and college-going backgrounds enter higher education with varying levels of preparation and self-confidence. They also carry the expectations–positive or negative–that their teachers, families, and social networks placed on them.

Unfortunately, negative expectations can influence early academic performance and sense of belonging on campus, so institutions must create scalable interventions that build academic confidence, sense of belonging, and college navigation skills.

Action Support

Create peer-to-peer programs to build belongingness and better scale advising

Different experiences with educational authority figures from high school can push some students to rely more on informal networks than official institutional resources. Underrepresented students and first-generation students may be more comfortable seeking support from other students for social guidance and to navigate the academic experience.

Well-trained peer advisors can become the first point of contact for students, especially first years, to build a sense of belonging and scale limited advising resources to populations with greater needs for intensive support.

Action Support

Remove financial and social capital barriers to participation in high-impact practices

As institutions face more pressure to promote social mobility for their students, they will have to reduce barriers to high-impact practices like experiential learning, internships, and co-ops. These experiences help students build career-relevant skills and gain access to networking contacts who can help their career prospects.

Too many first-generation and underrepresented students cannot participate at the same rates as their continuing generation and wealthier peers as they must work to afford college or do not have the requisite personal contacts. Institutions must proactively remove financial and administrative barriers to participation while also providing financial support to encourage equity in participation.