Driving Equitable Access in Higher Education

Postsecondary & Workforce

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This guest post comes from Carlos E. Santiago, Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education and chair of the Executive Committee of the State Higher Education Officers Association. Views expressed in guest posts are those of the author.

Every fall in New England brings falling leaves, and for the foreseeable future, it will also bring falling enrollments at many colleges and universities. Such demographic turbulence is cause for significant concern among college presidents. While I sympathize, I also see a moment of opportunity.

The simple fact is that Massachusetts and other states can’t overcome enrollment challenges without addressing persistent opportunity gaps identified by race, gender and ZIP code. That’s why the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education chose equity as the top policy and performance priority for the state’s public higher education system. To fulfill the board’s mandate for change, Massachusetts colleges and universities must pursue evidence-based strategies to enroll, retain and graduate greater numbers of African American and Latinx students. By 2032, the number of Latinx students graduating from Massachusetts high schools will represent one-quarter of the potential college-going student population, up from the current 6%, according to the state department of education. And while 74% percent of Latinx students graduate and 61% enroll in college, only 32% of those who start at a public college or university ever graduate from a post-secondary institution.

In states with tight labor markets, where high-skilled industries drive economic growth, the competition for qualified college graduates will only intensify. That’s good news for students who leave higher education with diplomas and certificates of value in hand. But too many, especially students of color, end up sidelined by systemic barriers. Sometimes they leave because they feel invisible or unwelcome. But make no mistake: When they leave, states lose.

If inequity is to higher education what climate change is to the environment — namely, a looming disaster with far-reaching consequences — then policymakers, campus leaders and faculty must be willing to translate good intentions into measurable progress. Here are Massachusetts’ must-do’s on its equity agenda:

1. Stop blaming students. Higher education leaders need to acknowledge that the racial disparities that show up in performance outcomes are theirs. That means committing resources and changing attitudes in a bid to become student-ready colleges rather than demanding college-ready students. Only when leaders move from a deficit model of thinking to appreciating the cultural wealth and capabilities of students will their efforts pay off.

2. Look in the mirror. Recently at a faculty forum, I looked out at a sea of white faces and asked, “Are you prepared to teach a new generation of students that looks nothing like you?” Too many would rather focus on students than hold themselves accountable for making change. Yet policymakers, administrators and faculty are the ones who must confront the structural racism that holds barriers in place. At the agency I lead, we’re examining our own roles through mandatory professional development, an equity audit of all policies and programs, and a redesign of financial aid.

3. Build a long-range, data-driven strategic plan. Massachusetts’ systemwide strategic plan will be developed by internal and external stakeholders and guided by careful analyses of key education indicators. The department of higher education plans to measure progress in meeting established goals at three-, six- and nine-year intervals. In addition to standard metrics such as on-time credit accumulation and completion of first-year college math, new indicators measuring faculty diversity and the outcomes of student climate surveys will be added. Overall, the goal will be to lead the nation in making more progress toward closing equity gaps than other states.

Many uncomfortable conversations and decisions lie ahead. Still, I believe the enrollment crisis may be a blessing in disguise if it forces colleges and universities to confront racial inequities with new fervor. At a time when the value of a postsecondary credential is being questioned by some, success in achieving greater equity for students will reaffirm the promise of higher education as a public good and a sustainable source of economic and social mobility for all.

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