February 23, 2021

Equity-Centered Student Success: It’s Everyone’s Responsibility

“Every college and university must focus with new intensity on supporting higher persistence and higher learning for students from underserved communities. This critical work begins with examining the institution’s history and data. Then with this context in mind, institutions should ensure that they have a framework of inclusive excellence—one in which underserved students are experiencing the high-impact practices and engaging in the inquiry-based learning that is essential in any high-quality liberal education.”

AACU Step Up and Lead for Equity: What Higher Education Can Do to Reverse Deepening Divides

Higher education is rife with data that illuminates the inequitable outcomes at colleges and universities for marginalized student populations. Campus leaders increasingly recognize the economic and social imperatives to permanently close achievement gaps for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and low socioeconomic (SES) students. Along with the academic achievement gaps, data shows that, for a variety of personal and systemic reasons, low SES and BIPOC students are less engaged in co-curricular programs that develop vital competencies for personal growth and skills that employers seek. While most higher education leaders now recognize these disparities, too many institutions relegate and delegate the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work to multicultural affairs or DEI offices or officers. At the same time, practices and cultural norms that contributed to those inequities remain intact. Simultaneously, the “student success” agenda is often delegated to student affairs, advising, and retention staff, with little direct organizational linkage between their important student-centered programs, wisdom and insights and senior administrative priorities and decision-making.

Degree Completion is Mission Critical and Contributes to the Public Good

Educational access and completion and economic success are intertwined. College completion has a direct impact on closing equity gaps in the larger society by helping students get better, higher-waged jobs providing a path to individual and family prosperity for the graduate and benefitting state and federal budgets through paying higher taxes and using fewer government services. Degree completion also drives civic engagement (Complete College America, Step Up and Lead for America). The demographics of the US population and thus of the college-going population are shifting. By 2060, the percentage of white students in public elementary and secondary school will decline from 52% in 2010 to a projected 32%, while the Hispanic population will increase from 23% in 2010 to nearly 40% by 2060. Even though the college-going population is more diverse, the median income level for white families is $62,000 compared to $39,000 for Hispanic families and $38,000 for Black families (U.S. Census Bureau). Campus leaders are better understanding the key role they play in advancing the mission of the institutions they serve and the imperative or IHEs to do better by all students to serve the public good.

Flipping the Lens: Centering Equity

Many campus leaders have become comfortable and quite sophisticated at using data to advance diversity at their institutions through targeted admission initiatives, hiring and promotion practices, and partnerships with the local community, including workforce development. Likewise with inclusion efforts, using campus climate surveys to understand better welcoming and belongingness, course evaluation data to understand the classroom experience for different student populations, and hosting diversity training and workshops for students, faculty, and staff. But, while IHEs may set institutional targets for diversity and espouse inclusion goals in strategic plans and campus programs, they are less well versed in operationalizing equity advancement. Equity involves not only increasing opportunities for individuals who receive an inequitable share of resources but taking specific steps to narrow the gaps between the most and least-privileged individuals and groups and recognizing that, as Chief Justice Harry Blackmun espoused, “in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.” To do this effectively and eradicate outcomes differences for marginalized identity groups, campus leaders must become comfortable with talking about diversity and inclusion as one of many high-priority campus goals and with actually centering equity and adopting an equity mindset toward all institutional decisions. As those at the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California have pointed out, this requires that campus leaders are race (and other inequity) conscious and aware of the social and historical context of exclusionary practices in American Higher Education generally, and more specifically, that they intentionally gather and use data to understand the specific patterns at their institutions. It also means critically assessing institutional systemic barriers to success for marginalized and underrepresented populations rather than focusing on the “deficits” of those populations to explain the disproportionality.

What College Leaders Can Do

Having intuitional dialogues about systemic inequities can be uncomfortable and difficult. But those conversations are imperative to ensure equitable access, outcomes and success for all students. Starting with data can help frame the conversation and allow multiple stakeholders to gain a clearer understanding of the current situation to allow for adaptive change strategies to complex systemic barriers to emerge. Using strategies set forth by the AACU and the USC Equity Scorecard, the checklist below frames how campus leaders can take responsibility for centering equity rather than only delegating diversity, equity and inclusion work in silos across the institution.

Using Data and Dialogue to Center Equity: A Checklist for Institutional Leaders

  1. Shift the lens and the conversation from compliance to equity-mindedness
  2. Involve multiple stakeholders in the process
    • Formal and informal structures
    • Be intentional about inclusion of historically marginalized voices that are often not included in institutional decision-making and goal-setting
  3. Conduct an internal scan of existing campus data
  4. Disaggregate data by population and assess your track record for marginalized communities
  5. Conduct an external scan of higher education metrics
    • By institutional type, region, mission, size
    • Prospective data trends for higher education
  6. Set equity goals
    • Context and mission-specific
  7. Monitor equity goals
  8. Align resources to equity goals
    • Reward
    • Budgets
  9. Provide targeted support for students
  10. Evaluate systems, not just students
    • Policies, Procedures, Practices
    • Cultural norms and assumptions
    • Identify and remove barriers


Complete College America: New Rules: Policies to Meet Attainment Goals and Close Equity Gaps. https://completecollege.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/New-Rules-2.0.pdf

Step Up and Lead for Equity: What Higher Education Can Do to Reverse Deepening Divides (AACU). https://rpgroup.org/Portals/0/Documents/Events/SummerInstitute/SI2018/2018_Past_Resources/Pre-InstituteReadings/StepUpandLeadforEquity.pdf?ver=2020-02-22-082355-253

USC Equity Scorecard: https://cue.usc.edu/tools/the-equity-scorecard/

Headshot of Anne E. Lundquist, Ph.D.

Anne E. Lundquist, Ph.D.

Managing Director of Learning and Impact
The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice

Dr. Anne E. Lundquist (she/her/hers), Managing Director of Learning and Impact for The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, is a white, cisgender, third-generation educated researcher, poet, yogi, and social justice advocate who draws on her 30-year career in higher education to help campuses use data for change. Previously, Anne served as Assistant Vice President, Campus Strategy for Anthology, Director of Strategic Planning and Assessment for the Division of Student Affairs at Western Michigan University as well as senior student affairs officer at four liberal arts colleges. She has taught diverse subject matter, including educational leadership, institutional effectiveness, higher education law, writing, and literature. Anne’s areas of scholarship and interest include strategic planning, enterprise risk management, student success, and equity-minded assessment. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and a doctorate in Educational Leadership, Higher Education, from Western Michigan University. She earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and English from Albion College.