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A female college student in a plaid shirt sits across the desk from a professional providing support.

Course registration should not involve a student walking from office to office across campus.

SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images

Equity in higher education entails ensuring that every individual has fair access to opportunities and resources essential for their success. The fact that there is a lack of equity in higher education in the United States is anything but breaking news.

Congress is well aware of the equity issues in higher education, as evidenced by the bills proposed in the 118th Congress. Glancing through the current bills proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives alone, three address affordability (HR 1731; HR 5998; HR 961), at least two that deal with access (HR 2957; HR 7477), and four deal with student support (HR 2401; HR 309; HR 5740; HR 7416).

Equity in education can be analyzed from many different angles, but many of these angles are overshadowed by discussions of affordability. While the affordability of higher education is always a justifiable topic of discussion, setting it aside for a moment allows a broader range of insight into the world of equity in higher education that may benefit your institution.

What could be learned if we set aside the question of affordability to closely examine equity from a multifaceted perspective? I did just that by traveling to Europe to visit 12 public universities to find out. Here are seven insights from these conversations and actions to take.

  1. Equity through availability and easy registration processes

In 2022, the Council of the European Union adopted a recommendation for EU higher education institutions to support lifelong learning and employability skills by offering microcredentials. The trend is similar in the U.S., which brings many more adult learners to our campuses. In a culture of lifelong learning, access for students can be discussed in a more literal sense when looking at the times when classes are available. If courses are not offered during the day and in the evening, access for a working student can be cut off simply by scheduling. This applies equally to when support offices are open. Most support offices close at 4:00 pm or 5:00 pm, so access can mean a student can never make it to an office before it closes.

Access can be improved for students via a one-stop shop for registration, like I saw at the University of Venice. In the U.S., students may need to walk to or call half a dozen offices when registering for college. Admissions, financial aid, adviser, ID card, housing—how many physical steps must a student walk to visit each of these, or how many phone calls must a student make to talk to each of these? Each additional step in the process is one step further between the student and successful registration.

Actions: Keep offices open later to accommodate working students, and physically go through your college’s registration process as a student.

  1. Equity through supporting the underserved

Even though we are looking at equity with tuition off the table, a student’s socioeconomic status is still applicable. When I visited universities in Sweden, Finland and Norway, students’ socioeconomic status was discussed as a barrier to equity access despite free tuition. With our focus on affordability, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that there are other barriers to access related to income. In Sweden, Finland and Norway, all three institutions I visited showed concern for students of lower socioeconomic status. Underserved populations have barriers such as family responsibilities and a loss of income while attending classes. If we can find ways to help the underserved with some of the challenges beyond tuition, students from these communities may have the opportunity to go to college. Ideas for doing this will be addressed in each of the remaining points.

Action: Review how your institution strives to support the underserved.

  1. Equity through supporting first-gen students even better

Another area of access discussed at European universities was access for first-generation students. These students are defined the same in the U.S. as they are in the European Union. Reaching these students is a challenge faced by all the universities I visited. Faculty members at the University of Malmo discussed how schools might help first-generation students overcome barriers to success simply by communicating with them differently and not assuming they know the higher education terminology. Does the staff at your school use language that a first-generation student would struggle to understand?

Action: Conduct professional development sessions on communicating with first-generation college students.

  1. Equity through mental health support

Assisting students in finding success also includes access to mental health services. When I visited the University of Bergen, university health office staff were doing mental health checks on students as they walked by a mental health table. With umbrellas in hand in the constant rain, they passed out sweet rolls and asked students to do a self–mental health check.

Mental health was also on the minds of students protesting at the University of Helsinki. As I approached the university for a visit, I was greeted with a huge hand-painted sign in English that, among other things, demanded “mental health services guaranteed.” In the U.S., mental health among college students is also a concern. According to the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, in the latest Healthy Minds survey, which received responses from 96,000 U.S. students across 133 campuses during the 2021–22 academic year, 44 percent reported symptoms of depression, 37 percent said they experienced anxiety and 15 percent said they have seriously considered suicide—the highest rates in the survey’s 15-year history.

Action: Call the services that your institution provides as a student and see what is involved in navigating the system.

  1. Equity through family-friendly practices

Institutions of higher learning can use innovation to create equity. The University of Salzburg has had the “Family-Friendly University” seal since 2019 and shared some innovative ideas for enabling parents to continue their education. The institution has operating agreements with 10 childcare facilities in the city where students receive priority. They offer childcare in the summer, babysitting exchanges, changing rooms and student success tips on how to study with children. While the one-stop shop previously mentioned would break down barriers for students, having school events, such as information sessions, that are available in the evening would accommodate working adults and could also include childcare and dinner.

Action: Look for ways for your school to be family-friendly.

  1. Equity through attainment

Attainment means students completing their degree or obtaining the certificate they set out to achieve. The playing field for attainment can only be leveled through innovative student success initiatives that are focused on helping a student persist. Successful initiatives do more than get students in the door. They consistently follow a student from enrollment to completion, bringing out the natural resilience that helps students persist and complete their goals. I asked each institution I visited in Europe about their students’ persistence and the student-success programs.

KEA in Copenhagen, Denmark, had a library system that was the hub for persistence. It had an inviting atmosphere with mood lighting, music and collaboration space. The library maintains a constantly updated website to help students be more successful and offers help in the most common areas where students struggle. The library staff is equipped to help them as well. Another area that actively helped students succeed was the University of London, where a Skills Hub offers resources, workshops and online courses, all designed to enhance student skills.

Action: Create and try new ideas to enhance student success.

  1. Equity out the door

Student success initiatives can lead to another type of equity: equity in opportunities. The most impressive institution that I visited in Europe was KEA in Copenhagen. The college supports students as they come in the door to start their educational journey through employment. Working with the community, the institution requires students to have internships while enrolled, so starting a career after graduation is a process already set into motion before students walk across the stage to receive that diploma. Partnerships with dozens of industries provide intern placements, with the agreement that the students cannot be offered a job until after graduation. Institutions of higher learning have room for growth in the area of making sure that students have jobs upon graduation.

Action: Create partnerships to provide internships and job placement for graduates.

Diane Lasyone Elliott is a senior evaluator at Western Governors University.

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