Every institution of higher education faces big challenges involving equity. Here are six:
Challenge No. 1: The Access Challenge
What will my institution do to enroll a student body more representative of the college-aged population and better serve underserved populations?
So far, the answer is simple and largely symbolic: we will eliminate standardized tests.
In the absence of significant changes in recruitment, financial aid, admissions policies, this response is likely to have limited impact.
An alternative is to go big:
- Establish partnerships with neighboring community colleges.
- Transform extension, general studies and continuing education programs and expand access to underserved populations, including college stop-outs and working adults.
- Offer fully equivalent degree programs in an online or low-residency modality.
Challenge No. 2: The Nontraditional Student Challenge
What will my institution do to better serve those students who work full-time, have family or caregiving responsibilities or are older, veterans, undocumented immigrants or have a disability or financial needs?
The standard approach is to set up an office or center for nontraditional students, like a disabilities center or a parents' or veterans' support group, or a food pantry, without fundamentally rethinking nontraditional students’ broader needs.
For example, would such students (and many others) benefit from the ability to complete a degree in the evening or weekend or fully online? Might they profit from expanded access to alternate kinds of courses like practicums, or from experiential learning opportunities, including clinical or field experiences?
Challenge No. 3: The Transfer Student Success Challenge
What will my institution do recruit more transfer students and remove barriers to their success -- including impediments to admissions, credit transfer, financial aid and access to high demand courses and preferred majors?
Why is it that roughly 80 percent of community college students aspire for a bachelor’s degree but less than 15 percent ever receive one? A big part of the answer lies in four-year institutions’ policies and practices, which can be changed.
We know what to do: develop more extensive articulation agreements, better align two- and four-year school curricula, provide potential transfer students with a degree map, encourage co-enrollment, improve onboarding (including accurate, timely, clear and useful information about credit transfer, course registration, financial aid and campus support services), and offer targeted programing for transfer students, including a dedicated orientation, bridge programs, a transfer center, special sections of high DFW courses, supplemental instruction programs and peer mentoring.
Challenge No. 4: The Achievement Gap Challenge
What steps will my institution take to reduce equity gaps in fields with significant disparities in student success?
The indispensable first step is to acknowledge the problem. Be utterly transparent about underrepresentation in particular disciplines, variance in grading across course sections and in persistence rates. Next, tackle the disparities in appropriate academic ways: conduct surveys, host focus groups, identify sources of potential bias, support course and curriculum redesign, offer evidence-based practices (like mentored research opportunities), and institute a tiered approach to student support, including dedicated course sections for students with uneven preparation, supplemental instruction, study groups and peer tutoring.
Challenge No. 5: The Professorial Challenge
What will my institution do to diversify its faculty and reward the faculty members disproportionately responsible for mentoring, advising and community service?
No one ever said that it would be easy to produce a professoriate that looks more like our student body, especially in a time of austerity. But certain steps strike me as appropriate and effective: build up areas of high student demand including Black, Latinx, and Indigenous studies; incentivize and reward departments that successfully recruit a diverse faculty; hire skilled, experienced practitioners and professionals as well as well as traditionally trained academics; and prioritize the training of students from underrepresented groups in doctoral programs.
At the same time, it is important to establish financial and other incentives for those faculty members who carry much of the burden of supporting diverse students and serving in essential institutional roles that promote equity. One proven approach is to place these faculty in charge of cohort, research, scholarship or opportunities programs in exchange for a stipend and course reduction.
Challenge No. 6: The Teaching Challenge
What will my institution do to incentivize high-quality teaching and support faculty to improve the quality of pedagogy and assessment?
By now, most institutions have taken certain first steps: establishing teaching and learning centers and educational technology support groups and offering regular workshops and training sessions. Some have gone a bit further and have offered grants to support course redesign.
But faculty need more targeted support if their courses are to be truly effective. I have personally benefited from access, at various points in my career, to a part-time instructional designer and educational technologist, assessment help, web design support, and even dedicated graduate students who developed instructional resources and tools.
Most institutions are in no position to offer anything like that level of support, but there are alternatives. One is to focus resources on the high-enrollment courses that would benefit most from institutional investment. Another is to make far greater use of undergraduate assistants. A third is to set up a departmental lab to promote collaboration among colleagues who are interested in pedagogical improvement.
At this fraught moment, gradual, measured, incremental reforms won’t cut it. Our students, with much justification, are impatient with the slow pace of institutional change and are looking for results rather than promises.
At a time like this, genuine leadership requires a multidimensional plan of action. My advice: go big or go home. Be bold. Go all out. Offer a plan to advance equity along every vector.
It’s not only politic: it’s the right thing to do.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.