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Closing equity gaps

Examining our institutions beyond diversity and inclusion alone.

This story was originally published in the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion blog here.

Equity in higher education is making waves in public discussions of access, achievement, and student success. According to AAC&U, “expanding access to quality education is key to making opportunity real for all. It is key to closing America’s deepening divides, strengthening the middle class, and ensuring our nation’s vitality. Yet, at all levels of U.S. education, there are entrenched practices that reinforce inequities—and that lead to vastly different outcomes for low-income students and for students of color” (AAC&U, 2015, p. 3). History shows that U.S. colleges and universities were not founded on social equality. Colonial colleges were designed for the elite—“racially White, gendered as boys and men, economically propertied, slavers and slave owners” (Stewart, 2020, p. 13). It is this historical philosophy that has produced and reproduced “gaps” in the U.S. higher education system and while access has broadened over time, gaps still remain.

Several attempts to expand and diversify higher education have been made, such as access programs through massification of higher education (Thelin, 2019), however, inequities have persisted. It is often because these efforts have largely focused on the presence of diverse students and inclusion alone. This approach to closing equity gaps often places shortfalls on students and families rather than on institutional practices.  Thus, students are experiencing “brick walls” that further entrench inequities (Ahmed, 2017).

No one meant for inequity to persist, but we need to reconcile that forces across higher education, not malign motives, are producing this growing inequity. “Indeed, the leaders who guide America’s colleges and universities have consistently advocated greater access for low-income students and adequate funding for colleges across the board. But by pursuing prudent policies to protect and advance their own institutions” (Clotfelter, 2017, para. 22) higher education has collectively added to the inequities experienced by students.

Data has shown a history of educational inequity; however, numbers alone have only taken us so far. Thus we continue to ask, how do we close equity gaps? “To truly reconsider the question of equity, we must move away from assuming that the core issues lie in focusing on who is in college and what they do while there” (Stewart, 2020, p. 15). It is not that diversity and inclusion are not important, but rather that without coupling diversity and inclusion efforts with focused examination of what we are “prioritizing, rewarding, and normalizing that consistently privileges those in certain groups” (Stewart, 2020, p. 16) achieving more equitable outcomes may continue to prove impossible.

Closing equity gaps will require moving the philosophy of higher education away from elite practices toward equitable practices by examining our institutions beyond diversity and inclusion alone. Closing equity gaps will require us to “critically examine institutional policies, practices, and structures through a lens that questions why inequities exist to change the educational environment to support the success of students – especially students who have been historically and continuously marginalized in our educational systems” (McNair, et al., 2020, p. 2). To advance substantive institutional change will thus require us to center equity in institutional decision-making and consider who is trying to participate but can’t and whose sense of belonging is being sacrificed to allow others to be comfortable.

Friday Forum: How to Close Equity Gaps 

Learn more about how to close equity gaps during the next Friday Forum on Racism in Higher Education on Feb. 25 from 1-3 p.m.

Main panel speakers:

  • Erin Castro, associate dean for community engagement and access and associate professor of Higher Education at the University of Utah
  • Jennifer Gomez-Chavez, vice president for institutional engagement at Excelencia in Education
  • Clyde Wilson Picket, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion at the University of Pittsburgh

Breakout session facilitators:

  • Keke Fairfax, associate professor and director of EDI for the Department of Pathology at the University of Utah
  • Annie Isabel Fukushima, associate dean of Undergraduate Studies, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and assistant professor in the Division of Ethnic Studies
  • Valeria Lopez, central Utah regional program manager for Latinos in Action
  • Elizabeth Morales, director of development for Latinos in Action

Register here by Feb. 24, 2022.