The pandemic has illuminated the challenges facing college students who are low income, first in their family to attend or a member of a racially minoritized group. From affordability to improving the learning environment to supporting students outside the classroom, the long-standing issues facing such students have been magnified. It’s not just hard to afford college. It’s difficult to stay enrolled and learn while juggling a myriad of academic and personal concerns.
Higher education is at a critical turning point. The pandemic and a long-overdue racial reckoning have highlighted the urgency of tackling head-on the structural barriers driving inequity. While colleges and universities have been grappling with these challenges for some time, the pandemic and racial reckoning have expanded the scale of what’s needed and accelerated the timeline for change.
I’m hopeful we can make significant progress because, as executive director of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ Powered by Publics, I’ve seen 125 public universities from across the country come together to build a better system over the past three years. Those universities are using the science of continuous improvement to innovate and test new ideas for improving their affordability, teaching and learning, and holistic student supports. Clusters of institutions in the network are collaborating to achieve lasting change in those three areas. We certainly don’t have all the answers, nor do we think those areas are the only drivers of inequity. But we do strongly believe that by transforming them, we can achieve significant strides in boosting college access and completion.
Affordability. We know affordability isn’t just a gateway issue for students; it’s a core component of the student journey from enrollment to completion. The pandemic has unearthed the scale of financial precarity facing many students and shown how those financial challenges so vividly translate into academic challenges, ultimately magnifying inequities. Taking this broader view, Powered by Publics recently undertook research with participating universities that examined creative approaches to affordability—from emergency aid to institutional debt forgiveness to open educational resources and other affordable learning materials.
Education-related expenses are just one part of the affordability picture; we know students face a variety of cost barriers, including childcare, housing and transportation, among others. Leading higher education institutions like those in Powered by Publics are committed to making college more affordable—in terms not only of the direct educational costs like tuition and fees but also those unexpected costs such as a stolen laptop, unexpected car repairs or a rent increase that can easily knock a student off their path to a degree.
For example, Virginia Commonwealth University has taken a student-centered approach to affordability by talking directly with students about their needs and re-engineering processes, policies and systems in response. When administrators heard that many students felt there were too many fees, the university consolidated course and program fees dramatically. The university established formal feedback mechanisms to keep information flowing, such as its Student Financial Services Advisory Board.
Teaching practices and the learning environment. This area plays a major role in student success as well. A group of Powered by Publics institutions in the initiative’s Big Ten Cluster recently undertook an in-depth examination of the share of the institutions’ students, disaggregated by a host of characteristics, that had received a grade of D, F or withdraw in key gateway courses, such as Introductory Calculus or English Composition. The analysis revealed higher DFW rates among first-generation students, Pell-eligible students, minoritized students and male students compared to the average DFW rate for the course. Following the examination of clusterwide trends, the institutions are now bolstering work to share data with instructors in real time, with the aim of strengthening institutionwide support for those students—and ultimately achieving universal success—in such foundational courses.
The University of Nebraska at Lincoln, for example, used DFW data to measure the impact of an active learning initiative in its mathematics department. It also hired a dedicated faculty director for undergraduate analytics to support each department at the university in analyzing their DFW data with a particular focus on equity.
Holistic student supports. Powered by Publics institutions are also working to provide to address the hurdles students face outside the classroom. Take the credits students lose when transferring institutions, for example. For the nearly 40 percent of students who transfer institutions, lost credits can add semesters of coursework and tuition costs—even leading some students to leave college altogether without a degree in hand. With a disproportionate share of low-income and minoritized students transferring, credit loss can compound existing inequities in college completion rates.
To address this challenge, Powered by Publics is supporting the examination of transfer-credit efficiency at five public colleges and universities in North Carolina. That research will help us better understand the barriers facing transfer students and catalyze action to remove them.
We know institutions must do better to help students overcome these challenges and provide a welcoming environment where students can learn and thrive. If “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets,” as Paul Batalden once observed, we need to redesign the system. The pursuit of equity is a journey for generations—we’ll never be done—but we must step up the pace. The universities in Powered by Publics are leaders committed to ensuring every student succeeds. By doubling down on affordability, teaching and learning, and holistic student supports, the higher education sector can build momentum for transformation—and never go back to the old, far from ideal, normal.