How to Stand Up for Equity in Higher Education
How to Stand Up for Equity in Higher Education

Equity is higher ed’s word of the hour – and rightly so.

After all, the pandemic has greatly intensified equity gaps. A Strada survey reported that half of all Latinx students survey and 42 percent of Black students canceled or altered their educational plans due to the pandemic, compared to 26 percent of non-Hispanic white students.

But the problem goes deeper than pandemic-driven disparities. After all, American colleges and universities have a long, ugly history of bias along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and class, a history of quotas, exclusions, and favoritism, which isn’t over.

We still see preference, privilege, and, yes, prejudice at work. What’s most shocking to me about the Varsity Blues scandal is its lack of impact. At the most highly selective schools, preferences for legacies, athletes in exclusive sports, donors, and faculty children remain intact.

At the same time, the real admissions scandal – the failure of highly selective schools to admit more students from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds – persists, despite certain symbolic, cosmetic, and performative gestures.

Equity is many things: an aspiration to pursue, a guiding principle to drive institutional decision-making, and a set of values to steer our conduct as faculty members or administrators. 

But equity can (and should) mean something more: A bludgeon, for lack of a better word, to pressure institutions to live up to their purported ideals of merit, diversity, inclusivity, and opportunity.

In its simplest terms, equity means fairness, impartiality, and justice – an equal opportunity for all students to participate fully in all the educational and non-academic opportunities we offer.

But as the great writer on politics, culture, media, and literature Raymond Williams observed in 1978, keywords (like class or liberal or culture) have shifting meanings that are inevitably influenced by the political values of the time.  

Such is certainly the case with equity. Equity today implies much more than equal opportunity; it entails equality of resources, ideas, respect, and outcomes. In education, equity involves acknowledging differences, then taking steps to bring all students to success.

Here are some simple, straightforward ways to advance equity on your campus.

Step 1: Conduct an Equity Audit
Justice Brandeis was right: “Sunlight is … the best disinfectant.”  Transparency is among the simplest ways to drive improvements in higher education. You can’t correct campus problem that remain invisible.

Right now, controversy swirls around predictive analytic tools that treat race as a risk factor. I fully understand the consternation this generates. But this should be an eye-opener and a prod to address gaps in persistence, achievement, and completion, variance in grading, and access to high demand majors and experiential learning opportunities.

Remember: Transparency is the key to institutional accountability.

Step 2: Redesign Admissions with an Eye Toward Equity
Students don’t begin at the same starting point. We must not penalize students because they lacked the privileges or the connections or the enrichment opportunities that others received.

While it’s certainly the case that some students are more polished and better prepared, the cliché is also true: Talent is widespread, and the key attributes of success – creativity, drive, persistence, resilience, leadership potential – aren’t correlated with income or social background.

A more equitable admissions system needs to diminish the influence of privilege and connections in admissions even as it increases access. It would:

  • Take into account “distance traveled”:  The applicant’s success in overcoming adversity.
  • Place an applicant’s record in context: Whether the applicant exhibits evidence of leadership and grit and other socioemotional and noncognitive factors linked to future success, like persistence, determination and an ability to overcome obstacles.
  • Look at variety of indicators of talent, achievement, and potential:  Does the candidate demonstrate proficiency in core competencies, such as the ability to write analytically, and offer other evidence of potential, such as focused achievement in a particular area (such as art, music, or science)?

Equity in admissions also entails aggressive outreach and recruitment, including sponsoring afterschool and pre-college bridge programs and professional development opportunities for high school teachers.

But equity in admissions for first-time students isn’t enough.  It needs to extend to community college students.  Nearly half of all students nationwide begin their education at a community college. In Texas, the figure is 80 percent. The failure to bring many more of these students to a bachelor’s degree is tragic. 

4-year schools need to work with feeder institutions to align, clarify, and streamline degree pathways, strengthen and coordinate transfer student advising, share data to drive evidence-based improvement, and ensure seamless credit transfer, with credits applying to gen ed and major requirements.  

Other ways to bring more transfer students to a bachelor’s degree are to create tools -- like CUNY’s Transfer Explorer (TREX) – to make it easy for students to see how credits transfer, and to offer co-enrollment and admission guarantees to simplify and facilitate the transfer process.

Step 3: Create a More Equitable and Inclusive Curriculum
Achieving equity in higher education isn’t simply a matter of removing barriers or closing opportunity gaps.  It’s also about creating a more socially-relevant curriculum that acknowledges:

  • the exclusion of voices, histories, achievements, traditions, and perspectives from existing curricula.
  • the need to reimagine individual courses not only to make them more inclusive of new topics and texts, but to reconsider canonical and non-canonical texts and interpretations in light of the growth of knowledge about colonialism, slavery, the construction of race, gender, disability, class, and age classifications, and earlier misuses of the social and natural sciences.
  •  the need to go beyond revising syllabi to laying bare the implicit and unexamined ideological presumptions and ideas that inform the selection of topics, the choice of readings, and the theoretical and interpretative lenses that the courses have adopted.

One way to do these things is to require students to take courses in diversity, equity, and inclusion. But an attractive alternative is to ensure that every course is culturally responsive. 

I suspect every academic is now familiar with the phrase “decolonizing the curriculum”: questioning master narratives and established canons, decentering dominant voices, interrogating normative hierarchies, and integrating alternate epistemologies and perspectives into our classes. All of us need to reconsider our courses, subject the course design, topics, and readings to critical scrutiny, and see how we can make the class more inclusive and more responsive to student interests and concerns.

A decolonized curriculum need not be confined to courses in art history, English literature, and history, for decolonizing the academy isn’t simply about topical coverage. It’s also about encouraging and preparing underrepresented students to enter the most important growth areas, like artificial intelligence, computer science, data analytics, machine learning, and neuroscience. And that requires making those fields more attractive and accessible. 

How?  

  • Eliminate weed out courses and unnecessary requirements. 
  • Place a greater emphasis on active and applied learning. 
  • Make greater use of data and primary sources to empower students to devise interpretations of their own.
  • Link the emerging fields with those that attract a more diverse enrollments, for example, in health care, statistics, and business. 
  • Establish certificate programs, boot camps and data-, AI-, and machine learning-oriented minors, and joint majors to reach underserved student population.

Step 4: Make Pedagogy and Assessment More Equitable

We often define equity as flexibility in grading, assignments, or due dates, and opportunities to demonstrate knowledge in multiple ways. But equity and inclusion require much more: intentionality and an approach that is holistic and multi-pronged and includes changes in pedagogy, academic support, and assessment.

Interviews with underrepresented students in STEM courses underscore the impact of poor pedagogy.  “The classes are disorganized,” said one, “yet extremely accelerated, graded harshly, and are often taught by professors who are not passionate.”  Observed another: “Success in classes was determined by those who could best teach themselves.”

The solutions aren’t a secret. 

  • Clearly delineate the course’s organization. 
  • Explain the material’s relevance and the practical application of abstract concepts. 
  • Place less emphasis on rote memorization and more on hands-on in-class activities. 
  • Pay greater attention to skills-building and problem-solving.

Assessment, too, needs to be viewed through an equity lens. 

  • Since high-stakes exams contribute to testing anxiety and stereotype threat, rely more heavily on frequent low-stakes formative quizzes and other kinds of activities that involve active learning.
  • Assess higher-order thinking and skills application rather than memorization.
  • Use authentic, project-, inquiry-, challenge-, and problem-based assignments, rather than standard exams, to assess mastery of essential skills and knowledge.
  • Divide projects into clearly delineated stages, which discourages plagiarism.
  • Have students undertake activities that emphasize skills development.
  • Provide prompt, personalized feedback.
  • Make sure your expectations are crystal clear.

Apart from reducing achievement gaps, this approach also has the added advantage of deterring academic dishonesty.

Step 5. Make the Student Experience More Equitable
Apart from the obvious step of diversifying the faculty, departments need to

  • Foster a sense of belonging and promote faculty and peer interactions through clubs, lunches, and outreach initiatives.
  •  Cultivate professional identity formation through participation in research, exposure to guest speakers, practicing professionals, and entrepreneurs, and opportunities to attend and present at conferences and serve as a learning assistant.
  •  Implement an early warning system to prompt timely interventions and a tiered system of support including boot camps, bridge programs, clubs, faculty mentoring, learning centers, organized study groups, supplemental instruction, tutors, and tutorials.
  • Tackle unmet financial needs with emergency financial aid, conference travel, research funding, and learning assistant stipends

For all the talk of equity, I fear that too often campus responses involve symbolism and virtue signaling.  A genuine commitment to equity goes well beyond letting students take a class pass-fail or allowing them to turn off the camera on their computer -- a well-intentioned policy that undercuts an instructor’s ability to read the classroom, respond to confusions and misunderstandings, and bring all students into a discussion.

True equity entails disrupting and dismantling systemic inequities. 

  • It requires instructors to “challenge the normalization of failure”  -- the expectation, especially in our more challenging classes, that it’s okay for a significant proportion of the class to fail or withdraw – by instituting policies to reduce DFW rates.
  • It makes instructors responsible for providing “clear guidance on what it takes to succeed” – sharing the secrets of notetaking, efficient reading, and processing, retaining, retrieving, and applying information.
  • It involves implementing evidence-based pedagogical practices that engage and motivate students and promote higher-order thinking and skills development.
  • It means forging a sense of community through breakout groups, team-based projects, and exercises that promote connection, like debates, discussion, peer evaluation of writing, and role-playing activities.
  • Above all, it entails enlarging the canon, considering alternate perspectives, and creating a culture of inquiry and questioning. 

It’s easy for more senior faculty to feel threatened by the emphatic calls for equity and to view the offensive against privilege as a personal attack. But, of course, those very faculty members once occupied the other side of the barricades. 

Our society faces several intellectual and moral imperatives: To incorporate the perspectives and contributions of the historically underrepresented into the curriculum; to diversify participation in our disciplines; and to bring many more students to a bright future.  

No one ever said that this process would be easy, painless, or conflict-free.  But it’s necessary nonetheless.

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



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