Making an Impact in Higher Education Equity

By Lorenzo L. Esters

Vice President, Philanthropy, Strada Education Network

Addressing equity gaps in postsecondary education will help more students thrive in college, complete their degrees, and find fulfilling careers. At Strada Education NetworkSM, we call that Completion With a Purpose®.

And it’s at the core of all that we do.

That’s why we are excited to be a part of Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence: Campus-Based Strategies for Student Success — and the outcomes the project is yielding.

Since 2015 Strada Education has been proud to partner with the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) — in collaboration with the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California — on this important project. With additional assistance from Great Lakes Higher Education Corp. & Affiliates, a cohort of 13 diverse institutions has worked toward improving success for all students. They have placed special focus in their commitment to equity and excellence on low-income, first-generation, adult and minority students.

And Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence already is making an impact. The project is:

  • Increasing student access to and participation in high-impact practices
  • Narrowing achievement gaps
  • Engaging faculty in professional development on active learning strategies
  • Infusing into curricula the 21st century skills that put students on a path to success in college and career

Focusing on data, faculty

During AAC&U’s recent annual meeting, I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion about the Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence project. Among the other participants were officials from California State University, Northridge (CSUN); Lansing Community College; and Wilbur Wright College — three of the schools involved in the project.

Disaggregating student achievement data to uncover equity gaps, and involving faculty in efforts to close those gaps were key to these three schools’ success. CSUN, for example, provided its faculty with dashboards displaying data on equity gaps. Lansing Community College conducted a faculty institute about creating authentic and meaningful relationships and engagement with students.

Tia McNair, Vice President in AAC&U’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Student Success, discusses the Committing to Equity & Inclusive Excellence project during the AAC&U annual meeting

Other institutions in the project have reported efforts such as providing support specifically for faculty teaching high-gap courses and developing partnerships with academic and staff departments to assist in transitioning transfer students to the university.

But as Wilbur Wright College President David Potash said, regardless of approaches taken to resolve equity gaps, successful efforts must begin with an institution’s conscious decision to be more equitable.

“Many of our practices and policies at institutions of higher learning — intentionally or unintentionally — work against equity. That’s one of the real challenges, and our systems are not designed to incentivize a focus on equity. There are usually no incentives, no rewards, and no increased support for doing equity work,” Dr. Potash told me. “If an institution wants to do something about it, one has to be deliberate and intentional.”

Achieving results

The 13 schools in the Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence project have taken significant strides — from their beginning understanding of why equity matters, to creating internal systems and structures to ask and answer difficult questions about student success and equity. Take a look at just some of the results achieved so far:

  • Anne Arundel Community College: For the course Traditional Intermediate Algebra, a gateway course, the institution increased the African-American pass rate by 8 percentage points, and the Hispanic pass rate by 4 percentage points. In the course Accelerated Intermediate Algebra, the Hispanic pass rate has increased by 7 percentage points, and the white student pass rate has increased by 6 percentage points. All of these improvements have happened in just one academic year.
  • Governors State University: At this predominately minority serving institution, 73 percent of faculty who have participated in workshops on equity-minded practices report that they plan to adopt those practices in their classrooms.
  • North Carolina A&T State University: At this Historically Black College or University, the gap in first-year retention rates between males and females decreased by 4 percentage points in one year.
  • Florida International University: At this Hispanic Serving Institution, the 15 gateway courses in Arts & Sciences — which have a combined enrollment of nearly 30,000 each academic year — have experienced improvement in passing rates for the last three years. The result has been an additional 4,600 successful course completions.

These successes are not happening by accident. They are happening because the 13 institutions involved in this effort are being intentional in their efforts to address the issue of equity in postsecondary education.

The average college student today comes from a diverse background, often returns to postsecondary education after working, or may be a first-generation student. These institutions have learned lessons about the importance of committing to practices that lead to sustainable change in equity and excellence for all of today’s students. They will share the full results of their work so far in an AAC&U report, “A Vision for Equity,” which will be released in March at the 2018 Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Democracy: The Inconvenient Truths conference.

I commend the project leadership of Tia McNair of AAC&U and Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux and Estela Mara Bensimon of USC. But most importantly, I commend our institutional partners for the progress they are making in closing equity gaps through this project.

We at Strada Education are confident that the early outcomes the institutions have achieved have set the stage for even greater student success going forward, particularly for low-income students and students of color.