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On day one of his presidency, Joe Biden signed 17 executive orders to reverse harmful policies enacted by his predecessor. What he can’t undo with the stroke of a pen is the lasting impact of former president Donald Trump’s harmful message that anyone who doesn’t look like him -- white, male, wealthy -- isn’t cut out for success in this country.

But let’s face it. This thinking has been with us for a long time. It has roots in the pernicious bootstraps mythology America is famous for: the cult of individualism, of personal responsibility -- all the while ignoring who has access to opportunity in the first place.

If the monumentally stressful year of 2020 was good for anything, it was that it held up a mirror to our bootstraps-entranced society. What was reflected was not a pretty picture. The last year was a long, painful refutation of that mythology and a glaring reminder of the deep racial inequities baked into our society. It has forced us as Americans to face our flaws and reminded us that we need institutions not to be gatekeepers but to work for us. To make us better. Healthier. More secure in our futures.

Higher education institutions have not escaped this reckoning. They have been forced to take a long, hard look at who has historically been seen as “college material” and who has been deemed unworthy of the rigors of higher education. The good news is that higher education has the capacity within its grasp to work for all students -- not just the lucky ones.

But first, we finally need to ditch the phrase -- and the thinking behind -- what it means to be “college material” and reimagine what responsibility institutions of higher learning have in ensuring college is the true force for equity that it can and should be. With a new administration in the White House, people being vaccinated for COVID-19 and the prospect of “normal life” more clearly on the horizon, colleges and universities will need to ask themselves what kind of culture they want to have when the pandemic is over.

College was designed for a slice of students who don’t come close to representing the majority of those whom we have a responsibility to reach. And enrollment and graduation figures have historically reflected that. Over time, institutions have responded by trying to do a better job of getting underrepresented students in the door but not on what happens after they arrive. Unsurprisingly, the results have not been what we’ve hoped for. Black students are 25 percent less likely than their white peers to complete their degree within six years of enrollment. That is just one statistic that reflects where we are falling short, and it points to a larger problem: something is going wrong between access and success -- especially for students of color, first-generation students, low-income students and others whose experiences have been overlooked for generations.

In the past, when we’ve tried to diagnose why this disconnect has happened, we’ve typically focused on a familiar set of factors: an incomplete foundation from elementary and secondary school, family financial stresses that sap energy and focus, the absence of social-emotional skills that facilitate learning, the absence of “grit.” Such explanations all have a common feature: they’re outside the institution’s control. And that has led to an abdication of responsibility on the part of colleges and universities when it comes to its own role in attending to how students experience their time on their campuses.

Identity, Safety and Social Belonging

At the foundation I co-lead with my wife, Tricia, we have launched an initiative called the Student Experience Project that includes a network of institutions dedicated to tackling inequities in students’ college success. Our partners in this work have developed the Student Experience Index, which collects actionable data on student experience, and how to transform it, that are helping those institutions make changes in real time.

More than 200 faculty members are collecting data in their classrooms and piloting tools to enhance students’ experiences. One of those tools, called ASCEND, gives professors better data on how students view their classes. Students periodically complete a five- to 10-minute survey, and a confidential report with disaggregated data shows professors how their classrooms are promoting or hindering equitable learning, as well as offers recommendations for improvement.

Many of the professors are already seeing positive movements -- and not just from one semester to another but within the same semester. The real-time feedback encourages them to reflect on their practices and make changes that can have an immediate impact on student success. Importantly, student experience is a leading indicator, which is part of what makes it so valuable. Professors don’t have to wait until they see missed assignments or poor test scores to adjust.

In other instances, faculty and administrators have used tools from the Student Experience Project to revamp their communications with students. Instead of wondering why students don’t show up to receive additional help, for example, they’re using research to learn about how students receive their messages and how to reach out more effectively.

More than a decade of research in social psychology teaches us that positive experiences of community, belonging and academic support will not just improve a student’s classroom experience but will also increase that person’s likelihood of persistence and graduation -- two stubborn barriers to achieving equity in higher education. We will have a lot more data to share from what we are learning with ASCEND and the SEP, but even now, the broad trends are deeply encouraging. Every single member institution participating in the Student Experience Project has improved their students' experience of identity, safety and social belonging. Many faculty members have shifted those scores by more than 20 percentage points -- some by more than 25 points for students of color -- in just the first semester.

In one instance, for example, a professor heard directly from a student who said how welcomed and valued the changes to the syllabus made her feel. She said she felt seen as an individual when her instructor told the students that everyone who is in her class is supposed to be there and that it's OK if some have to work a bit harder than others -- that not all the students have to start from the same place. The student said she kept trying because she knew she was good enough. Her final piece of feedback that day was, “It's only been one day, and I feel so welcome.”

What institution wouldn’t want that for each and every one of their students? Educators and administrators can dive into this work by learning about the research behind student experience, looking at disaggregated student experience data and committing to put what they've learned into practice to create equitable learning environments as a lever for equitable outcomes. Imagine the possibilities for higher education, and for the nation, if the millions of students not deemed “college material” started to feel like they belonged there.

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