Closing the Equity Gap
Updated: Jul 25, 2019
There is an equity gap in the U.S. that plays out decade after decade along historical patterns associated with race, ethnicity, income, immigration status and more. There are groups in the U.S. who get the short end of the stick so frequently and consistently that structural forces must be at play in our society. We refer to this phenomenon as structural inequality and to counter the effects of this, we often turn to institutions of higher education. Helping people from historically underserved communities gain access to the middle class or above is one of the core functions higher education is supposed to play in American society, often referring to education as the “great equalizer.”
With that said, higher education is struggling to achieve this goal. Our most prestigious universities largely serve students from families with significant resources, playing the unintended role of primarily preserving privilege. Meanwhile, institutions who focus mostly on students from historically underserved communities (e.g., community colleges) struggle to provide the services levels their students need to succeed under state and federal formulas that provide less funding per student. A few colleges have been able to meet this challenge with significant success, but so far, we have not scaled their success systemically. As we draw out and delay the development of comprehensive solutions to meet this challenge across higher education, inequality in our communities persists and arguably worsens in contemporary American life.
I am convinced that we are going to break through on this issue in the next few years and our best hope rests primarily with higher education; especially with community college education. I have seen success in narrowing the gap at three colleges and have watched other colleagues do the same. These successes seem to have the following five characteristics.
Strategic Prioritization: For equity to be a goal at any college, it must be recognized at the highest strategic level. It must be included in the Educational Master Plan, the Facilities Master Plan, the Strategic Plan and any other major planning document connected to the college. Supporting this should be a comprehensive equity plan that is developed through the decision-making process and treated as an academic priority with buy-in from the academic senate and other faculty leadership groups. It must be supported at the highest level. Who and what we celebrate matters on a cultural level.
Hiring: When students start college, it is critical for them to see themselves and their culture in the fabric of the institution. This can happen many ways, but the most important is by seeing students and employees (especially faculty) who look like them. As students become comfortable with their place in the college, as they come to see the college as their home, they then need to start experiencing different cultures. The world our students will enter when they leave college requires broad cultural literacy and we need to prepare them for this by creating college environments that reflect the cultures of the U.S. and the world. In this sense the quality of our academic environment rises as the diversity of our employees rise.
College Celebrations: We need to create environments where all students and employees feel valued and supported. One way to do this is to build and celebrate diversity across the institution. We do this with the traditions we recognize, the ideas we talk about and the people we hire/celebrate. I was in a focus group recently with students of color. In the group were several students who would be transferring soon and had visited several university campuses with Umoja (the club they belonged to). I asked them if they visited some campuses where they felt at home and others where they felt displaced. A number of students commented on the artwork and graphics on display at the campuses they visited and how it influenced their perception of belonging to the community.
Professional Development: I am a proponent of focusing professional develop around equity. I know there is a wide range of training needs for all employees; however, If we hope to close the equity gap, we need to commit to deep learning around equity mindedness and the application of this to our work. We need to institutionalize ongoing learning for all employees to improve our management, leadership, pedagogy and service related skills through intentional professional development programming from an equity lens. With this approach, we are able to explore significant questions as a community of professionals: What are the best teaching practices for helping students of color and low income? What are the best service practices for helping students who come from first-generation backgrounds? How can our infrastructure and spaces be used to encourage students who feel disaffected? What are the best management practices for nurturing a campus culture that is focused on equity? And more.
Support Services: There are several boutique programs at colleges across the country providing assistance to groups who often struggle academically. The success with most of these programs comes from the community they establish and the support services they wrap around their students’ academic lives. Running several of these programs as a college president, I have been impressed with their success but am also frustrated with their inability to scale because of programmatic expenses. For example, at my most recent college, the services provided to 60 students enrolled in the Puente Program (program for Latinx students) includes a dedicated counselor, instructional faculty member, a meeting space and a modest budget. There is no way this level of service could be scaled to the 6,000+ Latinx students who attend the college. This same dilemma exists around Umoja, DACA, LGBTQ+, men of color, foster youth, and related programs.
To scale these services, we need to implement a few basic changes. First, we need to move to a model of counseling teams and caseload management. Through this approach, teams made up of counselors, paraprofessionals, and faculty advisors are assigned a group of students to track through the entire life cycle of the student experience. These teams are empowered to actively intervene rather than passively wait for students to contact them. This requires deep data harvesting across powerful systems including a CRM solution (customer relationship management) for tracking and communicating with students and a pathways solution that informs where students are along their academic journey.
I am certain readers will contribute other areas that can be added to the five mentioned above. But, I have worked on equity minded initiatives at three colleges and have seen all three quantifiably narrow the gap by paying attention to these concentrations. And all three colleges did so with an incomplete implementation of these five strategies. The college who is able to implement these strategies comprehensively may be able to fully close the equity gap. Once the gap is closed—completely closed—we can legitimately accept the claim of “the great equalizer.”
Let me know what you think.