After all, the pandemic has greatly intensified equity gaps. A Strada survey reported that half of all Latinx students surveyed 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 nonacademic 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:
Equity in admissions also entails aggressive outreach and recruitment, including sponsoring after-school and precollege 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.
Four-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 — 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:
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.
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 multipronged 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.
Assessment, too, needs to be viewed through an equity lens.
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:
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’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.
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