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Equity Audits Should Be Commonplace

Higher education has a tool to identify and address issues of inequality, writes Annika Olson, and more colleges and universities should use it.

March 25, 2020
 
 
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We have long known that a college education is important in gaining skills for stable, well-paying jobs and developing a workforce. We have also long known about the disparities in outcomes of college students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Those educational inequalities affect long-term wage earnings and employment, and they go against the fundamental promise colleges make to prepare every student for future success.

But there is a tool to identify and address these inequality issues that has been rarely talked about on campuses: equity audits. We need more of our colleges and universities to do them.

Equity audits are a comprehensive evaluation of inequities and serve as a benchmarking tool to identify and address disparities in educational systems. They have become a popular method of analysis in K-12 schools. We should extend their reach to colleges and universities, addressing the stark disparities in outcomes for students today.

According to a 2018 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the total completion rate of all students who start a four-year public university is 66 percent. Broken down by race, six-year completion rates for students who started at a four-year public institution are: 48 percent for black students, 57 percent for Hispanic students, 72 percent for white students and 77 percent for Asian students. Of all groups, black men had the lowest completion rate, 36 percent, and the highest dropout rate -- nearly 50 percent.

But those national results vary widely from campus to campus. A 2017 report by the Education Trust showed that the graduation rate for Latinx students was almost 58 percent at California State University at Fullerton but only 34 percent at the University of Texas at San Antonio. In another comparison, George Mason University had a black student graduation rate of 66 percent, while at the University of Kansas, the black graduation rate was 45 percent. The reports noted that the wide variation in outcomes implies that what institutions do for, and with, the students they serve makes an impact.

This is where equity audits come in. What are each of these institutions doing that help, or fail to help, their student’s outcomes? For instance, are students receiving the support they need from professors, administrators, writing centers and counseling services? Is the faculty as diverse as the student population it serves? How do financial aid and cost play roles?

Colleges must examine what policies and procedures contribute to these outcomes, and equity audits can help to answer such questions.

For example, Skyline College, an ethnically diverse school of 10,000 students just south of San Francisco, conducted an equity audit that looked at community connections, curriculum, communications and hiring to improve student outcomes and graduation rates. They specifically analyzed whether outreach efforts made the college accessible for potential first-generation college students, what practices in algebra courses affected equitable success in statistics, how faculty members shared information regarding financial aid opportunities and whether current staffers and administrators were supportive of the student population. The audit identified gaps in each of these areas and provided specific ways to improve, with the goal of aiding student outcomes.

Unfortunately, equity audits like those conducted at Skyline College are hard to come by. But some lawmakers want to change that. In April of last year, U.S. Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, and U.S. Congresswoman Donna Shalala, a Democrat from Florida, introduced the College Equity Act, which would provide grants to incentivize higher education institutions to conduct such equity audits. The audits would review policies and practices and identify which ones are failing to serve underrepresented students. The legislation would essentially work to increase the number of college equity audits and address questions such as disparities in graduation rates.

Sadly, the Senate read the bill twice and referred it to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, where it has been sitting for nearly a year. It is time we pass this bill in the Senate. It is time we conduct comprehensive equity audits at colleges and universities across the country. It is time we work to address the disparities that exist in higher education, working toward more equitable institutions with the tools offered by those audits.

Bio

Annika Olson is the assistant director of policy research in the Institute of Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin.

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