Filling The Equity Gap In Higher Education

Last year our world came an abrupt halt due to the coronavirus pandemic. Due to this shutdown, our society had to figure out new and innovative ways of approaching education and shed light on the gaps within education.

This post will discuss equity within higher education and how we as institutions can do better at bridging the gap for our students.

What Is the Equity Gap In Higher Education?

Oklahoma City Public Schools defines educational equity as making decisions strategically based upon the principles of fairness, which includes providing a variety of educational resources, models, programs, and strategies according to student needs that may not be the same for every student or school with the intention of leading to equality of academic outcomes.

This same concept can and should be applied when discussing higher education as we have students coming from all walks of life including various demographics and abilities.

What’s the Difference Between Equity and Equality?

Over the years there have been ongoing conversations and dialogue around the concepts of equity and equality. How are they similar? How are they different? Where can organizations improve in these areas?

As a result of this discussion, there are many definitions and examples throughout the various social systems including education.

According to ThoughtCo., equality is providing the same level of opportunity and assistance to all segments of society, such as races and genders. Equity is providing various levels of support and assistance depending on specific needs or abilities.

Why Is Equity in Higher Education Important?

There are already hurdles built into the higher education infrastructure such as tuition prices and fees, college admission tests and processes, and academic course schedule conflicts.

Combine the examples listed above along with the varying degree of abilities, opportunities, and backgrounds of our students and what we see is a large gap in the equity of our students within their lifecycle at our institutions (recruitment, admissions, coursework, graduation).

It is critical to address the equity gaps to promote student success, retention and get them across the finish line of graduation and out into our workforce.

How Has COVID-19 Impacted Equity in Higher Education?

As the world had to shift swiftly and drastically to online education due to the coronavirus pandemic, we were all able to see the major gaps in equity for students across the country.

Along with the stress and fear of the pandemic and its effect on their communities, college students were faced with learning new technologies, troubleshooting issues with their internet and equipment or lack there-of, and increased mental and physical health concerns.

According to The Unequal Impact of COVID-19: Why Education Matters, almost 65% of workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher reported teleworking in response to COVID-19. In contrast, only 22% of workers with a high school diploma or less had teleworked due to the pandemic. This difference highlights the structural job vulnerabilities of workers with a high school diploma or less to mandated changes in work environments.

COVID-19, educational attainment, and the impact on American workers wrote that with employment levels falling by more than 20 million from March through May 2020 and the unemployment rate rising to its highest level since 1938, many people are feeling the economic impact of COVID-19.

Combine all of these issues along with the fear of potentially losing their jobs and income, students have been experiencing an extraordinary amount of stress which funnels into their academic course performance.

How Higher Education Institutions Can Achieve Equity

There are many ways higher education institutions can approach bridging this gap of inequity but for the purpose of this article we will touch on micro-credentialing and learner-focused design.

If you are looking for additional ideas and support, check out this article: 5 Keys to a More Student-Equity-Centric Future in Higher Ed.  

As you are reimagining your learning programs, I encourage you to start your design process with your learner in mind.

Within the scope of your learning environment answer these questions:

  • What are the goals of your learners? Why is the learner in your learning environment?
  • What are the pain points your learners may be experiencing? What obstacles do they have to overcome to be successful in your learning environment?
  • What have your learners experienced prior to their involvement with your learning environment? Think education, training, career/work, life in general.
  • What are the benefits people are looking to get out of this learning environment? What value does this learning experience bring to your learners?

By giving yourself time to answer these questions about your learners, it allows you to get a glimpse into where your learners may be coming from.

Your goal is not to design a “one size fits all” type of course or offering but rather be intentional with how you support and lift your individual students up to achieve their goals within your offering.

Another approach to bridging the gap of inequity is to create micro-credential offerings for students to help them showcase their knowledge, skills and abilities to help them advance in their education and career.

There are many skillsets that our students (traditional, non-traditional, veteran, athletes, campus leaders, first-generation, international, etc.) bring to our institutions from their previous education, work and life experiences.

If we focus on creating a space for our students to demonstrate these abilities, verify their validity and credential them, it will help students who come from inequitable circumstances reach their goals and beyond.

Take a look at these blog posts to help you get started in designing your micro-credential offerings.