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President Biden speaks on racial equity before signing executive orders.

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For years, researchers and higher education advocates have been frustrated by the lack of good Education Department data on how students of color and those with lower incomes are being let down by the nation’s higher education system.

“It’s hard to solve racial equity problems if you can’t see them,” said Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy at the progressive think tank New America, and formerly a senior policy adviser at the department during the Obama administration.

However, progressive advocacy groups say an executive order President Biden signed on his first day in office instructing the Education Department and all federal agencies to examine whether they are perpetuating systemic racism could have profound effects on the experience of students from underrepresented groups at colleges and universities.

In interviews, they said the order could eventually bring a range of changes, including the department providing data broken down based on race and income to allow researchers to pinpoint when, from applying for financial aid to dropping out or graduating deep in debt, the system is failing students. The review of its policies over the first 200 days of the administration could bring broader changes, say advocates like McCann, from requiring more from institutions to support students of color, improve campus climates for minorities and undo long-standing disparities in the abilities of historically Black colleges and universities and Black researchers in general to get federal grants.

Biden’s Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, signed hours after his inauguration on Jan. 20, most clearly reverses some of the Trump administration’s more racially insensitive orders. It repealed Trump’s orders barring diversity programs that paint the U.S. as “irredeemably racist and sexist country,” as well as his formation of a "1776 Commission" to counter teachings about slavery.

But it went further, instructing all U.S. departments and agencies, including the Education Department, to conduct “equity assessments” to see if their policies further systemic racism in “accessing benefits and opportunities.”

The administration hasn’t laid out any specifics about what the review could mean for college students. But at a press conference, Biden’s domestic security adviser, Susan Rice, called it “an unprecedented whole-of-government initiative to embed racial equity across federal policies, programs and institutions.”

All federal agencies, she said, will conduct “a review of policies and institutions to redress systemic racism where it exists and to advance equity where we aren’t doing enough,” she said. “Every agency will place equity at the core of their public engagement, their policy design, and program delivery to ensure that government resources are reaching Americans of color and all marginalized communities -- rural, urban, disabled, LGBTQ+, religious minorities and so many others.”

However, some are concerned the order could lead to reigniting conservative complaints that campuses are liberal breeding grounds.

The order, if carried out responsibly, could raise important issues, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“But some of the language reads like it could have come from an advertisement for a seminar in critical race theory at Oberlin,” he said.

“In education, we’ve seen this kind of thing used by lunatics and ideologues to push poisonous theory,” he said.

Still, the order encouraged Josephine Allen, a University of Florida materials science and engineering professor, who co-authored a call in the research journal Cell last week, on behalf of 260 women faculty in biomedical engineering, including chairs, deans and distinguished scientists. The academics called on the National Institutes of Health to take steps to end racial disparity in granting research funds. The article cited studies that found Black researchers are 50 percent less likely to get NIH grants than white researchers with similar academic achievement.

“Why does this matter? Promotion and tenure committees frequently use research grants, especially NIH R01-equivalent grants, to gauge a biomedical research program’s long-term viability. Thus, the racial disparity in NIH R01 awarding leads to failed tenure cases for Black faculty. Others burn out and exit the academy before reaching the tenure threshold,” the article said.

One section of Biden’s order could address the complaints. The federal government should “allocate resources to address the historic failure to invest sufficiently, justly, and equally in underserved communities, as well as individuals from those communities,” it said.

“I will be encouraged when there are concrete actions taken, policies and plans implemented, to ensure fair and just distribution of resources,” Allen said. “But, yes, it is encouraging that this is on their radar.”

In addition, HBCUs had been excited about Biden’s pledge during the campaign to deal with the historic inability of Black institutions to get federal research dollars.

“This is truly a celebratory moment in the journey of HBCUs,” Bruce Jones, Howard University’s vice president of research, told Inside Higher Ed in November.

The lack of funding has meant students at HBCUs do not have the same access as those at other institutions to train on state-of-the-art research equipment or get the same level of experience that would enable them to get jobs.

Biden, speaking at a press conference last week, also mentioned the need to increase funding for HBCUs. “Just imagine how much more creative and innovative we’d be if this nation held the historically Black colleges and universities to the same … funding and resources of public universities to compete for jobs in industries of the future,” he said. The White House didn’t respond to inquiries asking what Biden was referring to.

What else a review of federal policies for systemic racism could mean for higher education policy is as yet unclear. But nearly all advocates interviewed pointed to the need to disaggregate data to be able to tell more definitely than those based on surveys of students where the higher education system and the federal government are failing those facing the greatest obstacles.

And indeed, Biden’s order creates equitable data working groups. “Many federal datasets are not disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, disability, income, veteran status, or other key demographic variables. This lack of data has cascading effects and impedes efforts to measure and advance equity. A first step to promoting equity in government action is to gather the data necessary to inform that effort,” it notes.

Congress took a step toward creating more data on students of color in the budget package it approved in December, adding race to the questions students have to answer on Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms. However, researchers and advocates want the Education Department to analyze and release a range of data based on factors like race and income.

“There’s a lot that can come out of this effort to identify where the gaps are,” said Jessica Thompson, associate vice president of the Institute for College Access & Success.

“We’d have a fuller picture of the trajectory of students through the pipeline and get a picture of where people are falling out,” she said. More specific data would allow researchers to see if people of color are disproportionately affected at certain points of the application process for student aid. She said, for instance, that the data could show that people of color are disproportionately denied aid at a stage when applicants can be asked to verify their financial information, which could lead to changes in how the verifications are done.

“Higher education is data-rich but information-poor,” said Mamie Voight, the Institute for Higher Education Policy's senior vice president of research and policy. “Further disaggregating data -- by race, socioeconomic status and gender, for example -- will provide usable information, identify trends and provide a path forward to address inequities.”

Prospective students of color and those with low incomes could also tell where they might have the best chance of succeeding, she said, by adding data on how well students of different races and economic backgrounds fare in being able to graduate and how much money they make afterward.

To McCann, a review of the department’s policies could lead to incorporating best practices in helping underrepresented students succeed, including tutoring and financial help for costs like transportation and books.

Kayla Elliott, the Education Trust’s assistant director for policy, agreed the executive order could lead to better data to identify disparities that need to be resolved

But Ed Trust and other groups say they’re hoping the Education Department’s review of its policies, including what it requires of institutions, will lead to stronger requirements in which colleges and universities could be penalized if not enough students of color and lower-income students succeed.

Attention, Elliott said, is generally focused on the diversity of students being enrolled or graduating from campuses, and less so on the campus “racial climate” they experience while they’re there. “We too often are focused on entry and exit,” she said. “But not on what happens in between.”

The Education Department, she said, could require accreditors to examine whether diversity is reflected in a college’s course offerings.

Meanwhile, other advocacy groups also see Biden’s order as an opening to require more from institutions.

The Center for American Progress, for instance, proposed in 2018 that the Education Department require that institutions sign performance contracts, with several requirements.

“These would include measures of access, such as the percentage of low-income students enrolled; measures of completion, such as the withdrawal rate or the graduation rate; and measures of post-school success,” the report said. Institutions would also be held liable on the percentage who are able to earn family-sustaining wages. “Institutions would also be expected to undertake efforts to keep their cost of delivering the education from growing too fast.”

While creating the contracts would require congressional approval, said Antoinette Flores, the left-leaning group’s director of postsecondary education, the department could impose some requirements on its own. The idea likely has an ally at the department -- Ben Miller, CAP’s vice president for postsecondary education policy, was tapped as a temporary special adviser on higher education to the deputy education secretary’s chief of staff.

Another group, the National Student Legal Defense Network, founded by top Education Department attorneys in the Obama administration, has been pushing a similar idea. The department, they said, could require institutions that participate in the federal student loan program to meet conditions. The group urged the department in a report last year to require that prospective students eligible for Pell Grants are accepted at the same rate as those that are not eligible for the low-income program. And to make sure they have the support they need, the department could also require that Pell Grant recipients graduate at equivalent rates as wealthier students.

The department should aggressively use its power under the nation’s main higher education law, said the defense network’s spokesman Sam Gilford. “It’s clear that our higher education system isn’t working for everyone and that structural flaws are unfortunately exacerbating inequity,” he said.

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