When it comes to the stunning disparities in outcomes for college students of different races and class backgrounds, higher education leaders know all the dismal national statistics. For example, only 4 in 10 black students and half of Hispanic students earn a degree or certificate within six years of starting college, compared with more than two-thirds of white students. Moreover, the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans are five times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 25 than the least wealthy 40 percent.
Yet college administrators are very often in the dark about the experience of low-income students and students of color on their own campuses. They may know the graduation rates by race and ethnicity for their schools, but do they understand how policies and practices at their institutions contribute to these outcomes? For instance, are they enrolling low numbers of African American students in part because they are not sending recruiters to diverse high schools? Could another reason be that their institutions offer an early decision program that is more likely to accept white students? Do their colleges immediately knock low-income students off the path of degree completion with placement tests that tend to funnel those from under-resourced high schools into noncredit remedial classes? And do campus support systems, including resources such as writing centers and counseling services, reach the students who most need additional help?
Too often, colleges lack the funding, data and research capabilities, or the sense of urgency to answer these questions.
Improving outcomes for underrepresented students
Last week, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced the College Equity Act, a bill to help colleges make their campuses more hospitable to historically underrepresented students. To accomplish this, the bill recommends that colleges conduct equity audits—internal reviews of key policies and practices to identify those that fail to effectively serve underrepresented students—and then provides additional grant funds to make improvements based on the audit results.
Equity audits are a central feature of Beyond Tuition, the vision for remaking American higher education to improve affordability, quality, and accountability, released by the Center for American Progress last year. In the system that Beyond Tuition proposes, institutions would sign performance contracts requiring them to improve their quality in exchange for increased state and federal funding. Under the terms of the contract, institutions would have to conduct equity audits and then act to address findings.
Sen. Schatz also recently reintroduced a bill that would make college debt free. His new proposal to promote and fund equity audits pairs well with any effort in Congress to make college more affordable. However, even in the absence of broader reform, Sen. Schatz’s bill would provide colleges with a powerful tool to make their campuses more effective at serving all students. Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Doug Jones (D-AL), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) have all signed on to support the bill.
Higher education’s inequities flow not only from declining public funding and rising tuition, but also from some of the deepest problems in American society, including racism, wealth inequality, and segregation in K-12 education. Individual colleges and universities can either make these problems worse or make enormous strides in overcoming them. The Education Trust has highlighted examples of institutions that have very similar student bodies but produce widely divergent results. One such case is California State University, Fullerton, which had a nearly 60 percent graduation rate for Latinx students in 2015, compared with the University of Texas at San Antonio, where only one-third of Latinx students earned a degree.
Sen. Schatz’s bill would require the U.S. secretary of education to issue two-year planning grants to colleges to review their policies, practices, and resources to identify factors that contribute to gaps in outcomes by gender and race and ethnicity, or among low-income students, first-generation students, students with disabilities, student parents, transfer students, veterans, and students who have been involved in the criminal justice system. These reviews—or audits—would consider a wide scope of equity issues, including financial aid practices and admissions policies, such as the makeup of students admitted through early admissions and legacy admissions and the treatment of transfer students. The reviews would look at orientation and bridge programs along with student support, counseling and mental health services, and child care centers. In addition, colleges would be expected to examine instructor diversity, accessibility for students with disabilities, and whether certain types of students have disproportionate access to small and specialized academic programs.
Separate five-year implementation grants would be available to institutions that serve sizable populations of low-income students and have low spending—meaning they are underfunded. The legislation would give priority to schools that have low-performance outcomes or large gaps in outcomes and whose leaders show commitment to the improvement plan.
Apart from Sen. Schatz’s bill, colleges interested in pursuing an equity audit can learn from a rich variety of examples of equity audits and other formal methods of self-inquiry from the K-12 education field and elsewhere. These assessments range from the Equity Impact Review tool developed by King County in Washington state to the Equity Scorecard, aimed specifically at colleges, from the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California.
It is imperative that national and state policymakers step up to the challenge of renewing the promise of an affordable and high-quality higher education for everyone. However, campus leaders also share responsibility. College officials cannot close achievement gaps that they don’t know exist. They need encouragement, support, and even public pressure to take a clear-eyed look at their own shortcomings.
Marcella Bombardieri is an associate director of Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.