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The Single Biggest Equity Issue in Higher Education

It isn’t access or affordability. It’s success in high-demand, high-outcomes majors.

March 1, 2021
 
 

If you didn’t pass advanced math, chemistry and physics in high school, it is unlikely that you can succeed in today’s high-demand fields: accounting, computer science, engineering, nursing and a host of STEM disciplines.

In fact, one of the reasons why a disproportionate share of men drop out of college is because of a misguided belief that they can succeed in fields for which they were ill prepared in high school. Persistence and perseverance may be ethical virtues, but these can be counterproductive if the end result is to instill a sense of failure.

At many campuses, the single best predictor of whether a student will drop out or transfer is whether they are closed out of their top-choice major.

Many institutions have responded by creating alternative majors, which we might call STEM lite. These majors may allow a student to graduate, but too often these majors turn out to be dead ends, offering no clear pathway to a career.

Overwhelmed by demand and suffering from supposed capacity constraints, many of the most popular majors have instituted an obstacle course, which includes extensive (and seemingly irrelevant) prerequisites and lower-division weed-out classes.

Their large classes and shortage of labs results have many negative consequences: closed-out courses, a lack of mentoring and fierce competition.

In general, this isn’t a matter of ill will; it’s a matter of scarce resources and rigorous standards. However, I am well aware of institutions that gate high-demand majors in order to improve their national rankings.

To be sure, there are institutions that have demonstrated that success in STEM and other challenging fields isn’t only for the well prepared. The University of Maryland Baltimore County and many HBCUs have really extraordinary records of success.

These institutions show what success takes: commitment. Intensive advising and mentoring. Summer bridge programs. Freshman research experiences. Supplemental instruction sections. Mandatory study groups. Opportunities to assist neighboring middle and high school teachers.

My UT colleague David Laude, a professor of chemistry, has had an extraordinary record of success and shows that equity can be achieved. But higher ed shouldn’t rely on those rare individuals whose level of dedication is superhuman.

Predictive analytics was once thought of as a way to address this challenge. By analyzing a student’s high school record and performance in lower-division college classes, an algorithm could calculate with a surprising degree of precision the likelihood that a student would succeed in subsequent courses and issue recommendations about what courses the student should take.

But predictive analytics raised the specter of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nor did it take into account grit and determination or the ability to grow.

How, then, can we improve equity in especially challenging disciplines? Here are several suggestions.

1. Recognize that talent is widespread, but opportunity isn’t.

One answer: build a pipeline.

We can’t achieve equity unless we create stronger precollege pathways. Work with local high schools to better prepare students for success in the high-demand fields. Stronger dual-degree/early-college programs make sense. So, too, do precollege summer bridge programs.

2. Process analyze the student journey to identify roadblocks and hurdles.

Solutions include early identification of students who are at risk of failure and placing them in special intensive supplemental instruction sections. Pinpoint the areas where these students are encountering problems and address those specific issues with tutoring and tutorials.

3. Invest in robust interactive courseware.

Courseware, the next iteration of the textbook, does much more than transmit information. It offers a high-quality online experience -- with embedded assessments and tutorials -- that can help many students monitor their understanding, master essential content and skills, and apply information to a variety of challenges at their own pace.

4. Introduce a system of wraparound supports.

A tiered system of supports makes sense, ranging from one-on-one and group tutoring, mandatory study groups, and intensive advising to supplemental instruction.

5. Create preprofessional centers in business, data science, design, engineering, health, law, sustainability and technology that feature robust co-curricular offerings.

Student success efforts can’t be confined to the classroom. Preprofessional centers can create a sense of community and belonging. Their programming -- including presentations by diverse practitioners and professionals and visits to related firms -- can help students feel that they can succeed in high-demand fields.

6. Create highly desirable graduate school-directed or career-aligned alternative pathways.

Not everyone is well suited for certain challenging fields, but there may well be related fields that align well with the students’ interests and talents. Open windows into job possibilities that students may not be aware of. Examples include applied mathematics, health administration, health informatics, human-computer interaction, human resources management, information science, information security, information systems management, operations and supply chain management, operations research, and project management.

Equity entails more than opening doors. It requires us to do everything we can to help students realize their potential.

Currently, our country lets far too much talent go to waste. It’s on us to bring many more of our graduates to the future they crave.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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