What is Equity in Education?

June 13, 2023 Watermark Insights

As the world has been grappling with the effects of the global coronavirus pandemic and its economic ramifications, the racial and social class inequalities that still exist in the United States have been even more apparent. Addressing inequalities built into the legal system, and remedying inequitable access to education and health are at the forefront of how the United States is attempting to heal while in a pandemic.

Equity in Education

What is Equity in Education?

One thing that most Americans can agree on is the importance of equity in education. But, what exactly does that mean? Equity in education is not always easy to define, but for many, it can mean custom solutions for funding, resources, or academic support - depending on the student's specific needs. However, the overarching purpose of equity in education is fairness - making sure that each student receives what he or she needs in order to succeed.

When it comes to higher education, equity can be even more complex. According to the Department of Education, “The challenge of ensuring educational equity is formidable...We also know that traditionally underserved students, including minorities and low-income students, attend and complete college at far lower rates than their peers. These students are suspended, expelled, and drop out at higher rates, and are less likely to have access to strong teachers and challenging curricula. As just one striking example, a recent study of the Advanced Placement exam in computer science found that in 11 states, no African-American students took the exam; in eight states, no Hispanic students participated.”

Equity vs. Equality

While equality and equity are often used interchangeably, there are significant differences between these two terms. In an equality-focused classroom, all students have the same educational opportunities throughout their college careers. However, this approach does not consider that every student has different needs or adjust accordingly to help them be successful. 

Equity, however, focuses on taking the opportunities presented to students and providing them with the specific support and resources they need. Subsequently, disadvantaged students still receive the same opportunities plus the help they need to ensure success.

The Changing Face of America

The look of America is changing. In a July 2020 report from the Brookings Institution, author William H. Frey wrote, “The new estimates show that nearly four of 10 Americans identify with a race or ethnic group other than white, and suggest that the 2010 to 2020 decade will be the first in the nation’s history in which the white population declined in numbers.”

A 2020 report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) found that “While white students still represent the majority of those enrolled in college, there has been a steady rise in college enrollment for students of color. And Latino students slightly outpace white students in one piece of recent enrollment data (not shown): the immediate college-going rate, or the percentage of students who attend college within one year of high school completion. In 2012, the immediate college-going rate of Latino high school graduates was 69 percent, compared to 67 percent for white graduates, 62 percent for African American graduates, and 84 percent for Asian graduates.”

Given the changing demographics in the U.S., higher education and technical education institutions need to examine their own programs and practices to ensure that all of their students have access to what they need to succeed. The AACU calls this “Equity-Mindedness.”

Mindfulness in Higher Education

The AACU report also found that to “effectively educate today’s students, higher education must focus on both equity and quality—to make the most empowering forms of college learning available to all students. Such an approach begins with equity-minded leaders who make it a priority to build new opportunities for low-income students and students of color.”

Equity-minded leaders, the report states, “are aware of the historical context of exclusionary practices in higher education and understand the impact of this history. They recognize the contradiction between the ideals of democratic education and the social, institutional, and individual practices that contribute to persistent inequities in college outcomes.

“Equity-minded leaders also reject the ingrained habit of blaming inequities in access, opportunity, and outcomes on students’ own social, cultural, and educational backgrounds.”

“Most important, equity-minded leaders use this mindset to act for change. They recognize the need for systemic transformation, starting in school and continuing in higher education, to make quality learning for the nation’s underserved students a shared priority. They invest their time, effort, and political capital into discussing these issues and mobilizing institution-wide efforts and community partnerships to address them.”

Why Is Diversity Important in Higher Education?

Many colleges and universities share the idea that providing a diverse experience allows them to fulfill their overall mission of offering high-quality education. Some of the many additional reasons why colleges and universities place such importance on diversity and inclusion in higher education include the following:

  • Enriches the educational experience: We learn more from individuals whose experiences, beliefs, and perspectives differ from ours, and these lessons are more effective in a diverse intellectual and social environment.
  • Promotes personal growth and a healthy society: Encouraging diversity aids in challenging preconceptions by facilitating critical thinking and helping students learn how to communicate with people of various backgrounds.
  • Strengthens communities and the workplace: A diverse higher education experience encourages students to become good citizens in a complex society by fostering mutual respect and teamwork and building a community where members only judge one another on their character and contributions.
  • Enhances economic competitiveness: Remaining prosperous in the 21st century requires all companies to create work settings that celebrate individuals from various cultural experiences and backgrounds.

Who Benefits From Racial Diversity in Higher Education?

All races can benefit from racial diversity in higher education. Studies have shown that informal interactions with peers of other racial groups in a higher education setting significantly enhance an individual's learning outcomes. In these interactions, students of all races experience improvements in intellectual engagement, self-motivation, and critical thinking. Students become better scholars and citizens by interacting with peers outside of a classroom setting. 

Informal, interpersonal interactions also improve the cognitive development of students of all races. Students who interact with racially and ethnically diverse peers make significant gains in cognitive skills such as problem-solving.

Additionally, the positive effects of a student experiencing a diverse higher education remain relevant long after graduation. In one study, researchers remained in contact with students for over a decade after they graduated to measure the impact of their diverse college experiences. These interactions positively affected personal growth and provided a greater sense of purpose. 

While more studies are still necessary to provide definitive proof, these early reports show that exposure to diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education has long-lasting effects on a student's overall well-being.

Education Equals Opportunity

Getting a higher education degree can have a great effect on a person’s financial upward trajectory. A report by Pew Charitable Trusts titled, “Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations” found that attaining a “college degree makes individuals much less likely to become stuck at the bottom of the family income and wealth ladders.” The Pew report also found that having a four-year degree “also makes one more likely to rise from the bottom of the ladder all the way to the top—over three times more likely for family income and over four times more likely for family wealth.”

With the degree attainment gap for low-income students widening, it is all the more important to ensure that higher education and technical education institutions do the work to ensure that all students have equal access to successful academic achievement.

Creating Equity in Higher Education

What can higher ed and tech ed institutions do to create more equitable opportunities for their students? Learning institutions need to find ways to keep students engaged in order to optimize student outcomes and increase retention. One proven way to increase student retention and positive outcomes is through student success coaching.

Student success programming looks at the whole student, meaning not only what their students face academically or financially on campus, but also what their lives are like outside of the classroom. Do they have jobs, family commitments, health issues? Are they facing housing issues or food insecurity? Success coaching programs take all of the student’s life experiences to create a personalized advising experience to assist students through their time at the institution. Success coaches enable students to have a single point of contact who can connect them to resources throughout the learning institution and the community. These contacts can help students with everything from financial aid services to housing, food, transportation and childcare. Success coaches guide and support students through their academic journey.

Successful Outcomes

Learning institutions with success coaching programs to enhance equity on campus have realized successful outcomes. Watermark partnered in a First In The World research program with DVP-PRAXIS LTD, Carolina Works, and JFF to complete a five-year study on the impact of proactive and personalized student support, like technology-enabled success coaching, can have on students.

Key findings of the study include:

  • Impacts of success coaching grow larger over time, as students develop meaningful relationships with a trusted professional
  • Male students and Black students experience larger benefits from coaching
  • Strong institutional support and low coach turnover increase the impacts of success coaching on student retention and completion

The study results also found that “Black students who were assigned to a coach were 8% more likely to remain enrolled for a year and 18% more likely to stay enrolled for two academic years. First-year male students with a success coach experienced an 8% increase in Fall-Fall retention and an 8% increase in course completion.” (by DVP-PRAXIS LTD)

Watermark’s proven program has provided students and learning institutions with a path toward success. Watermark’s partner institutions have achieved a 29% increase in retention rates for students with an academic plan as compared to those without. Additionally, persistence rates for partnering institutions have increased from 8-14%, resulting in over $2 million in retained tuition fees.

Imagine the impact community colleges could have on institutions nationwide if we take the best practices from this study and implement them within our own institution’s Student Success programs. Given the increasing numbers of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds who will be entering higher learning institutions in the coming years and decades, it is important for higher ed and tech ed institutions to start focusing on how to incorporate equity programs into their establishments in order to level the playing field so that all students have an equal chance of academic success.

Create an Inclusive Classroom With Watermark

Creating an equitable and diverse higher education experience is a complex and critical issue. While there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution, partnering with Watermark allows your institution to transform data into action to create a more inclusive educational experience for all students. To learn more about how our solutions and resources can best benefit your team, request a demo today. 

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