Notes from the ARC: Equity and Access in Higher Ed - What’s Data Got to Do with It?

Since completing a college degree is vital to moving to a higher socioeconomic level, access to higher education is paramount. WSCUC and other accreditors have always maintained a strong focus on access to education. More recently, however, we are also dedicating significant attention to outcomes and measures of educational effectiveness, including retention, graduation and achievement of learning outcomes.

Higher education has a bad rap these days, and, to some extent, this is exacerbated by the focus on outcomes. Concerns persist about large student loan debt loads, especially among those who do not graduate. And for those who do graduate, everyone wants to be sure the degree is worth the price. Balancing access with the need to provide equity of outcomes is difficult. If institutions choose to tighten admissions requirements and become more selective, student learning outcomes, retention rates, and graduation rates would likely improve - yet marginalized groups could get squeezed out.  

WSCUC is interested in helping institutions find the sweet spot in this balance. The key is creating access to students who might be somewhat risky to admit, considering their academic preparedness, and, at the same time, creating learning environments and providing appropriate support services that enable students to overcome any challenges. 

So what does data have to do with all of this? 

Balancing openness and the ability to admit students from diverse backgrounds with the support necessary to promote successful outcomes depends on a thorough understanding the demographic profile of the student body. Disaggregating based on race, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status provides critical insight into the diverse needs of students. 

The WSCUC Graduation Rate Dashboard and its associated comparative tools allow institutions to use their own institutional data to see how well their retention and graduation rates compare with those rates likely associated with their own student profiles. These WSCUC-created tools can help institutions determine the specific types of interventions and supports that can help students from different backgrounds achieve success.

Narrowing and eventually eliminating the achievement gaps between different student subpopulations is an important national goal and is a major focus within the WSCUC region. 

Demonstrating improvements in student outcomes requires learning from the disaggregated data regarding student demographics. How well are student subpopulations doing relative to each other? How well are they doing compared with students at comparable institutions with similar student profiles? Do women graduate at the same levels as men? Whites versus those of other races? Why or why not? 

WSCUC is proud to offer the Graduation Rate Dashboard and other tools to assist institutions in demonstrating greater accountability for achieving the right balance between access and equity of outcomes. To learn more about the Graduation Rate Dashboard while at the 2018 Academic Resource Conference, join us on Thursday, April 26 at 12:00pm for "Graduation Rate Dashboard 101"in the Hyatt Regency Ballroom A. 

Lori Williams, PhD, is a vice president at the WASC Senior College and University (WSCUC). Previously, Lori served as provost and ALO at Ashford University in San Diego

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