Notes from the ARC: A Rising Tide

I have been thinking lately about the saying “A rising tide lifts all boats.” 

While traditionally used in financial contexts to indicate that a strong economy benefits everyone, I have heard it pop up more and more in higher education discussions around graduation rates and student success. 

I have to say I am skeptical: Even if it is true that many colleges and universities have succeeded in yielding better results in higher education outcomes for all of their students, doesn’t it behoove us as educational practitioners and university administrators to disaggregate the data and examine if race- and income-related equity gaps in degree attainment persist for our historically underserved student groups? 

Reading the 2015 AAC&U Report “Step Up & Lead for Equity: What Higher Education Can Do to Reverse our Deepening Divides” was instrumental in replacing my commitment to equality—where everyone is treated the same—with an equity-minded approach that recognizes that achieving equal outcomes requires us to serve students differently based on their unique needs. 

How do students who are the first in their family to attend college navigate academia when there is no one in their immediate circle to ask for advice? What challenges do low-income students face that are simply non-existent for their more well-off peers? And how welcome do students of color feel when their classroom environments support micro-aggressions or other forms of racial stereotyping and bias, whether overt or implicit? 

Until recently, the burden to succeed was placed largely on the shoulders of the students and their potential for failure was habitually explained with the notion that “college is not for everyone”. However, rather than bemoaning their students’ lack of readiness, equity-minded institutions are instead examining their own readiness to serve the students they accept. 

Replacing this deficit-based approach to students with asset-based teaching and advising practices opens up new opportunities to foster resilience and nurture strengths that may help students overcome challenges on the path to earning a degree.

To hold ourselves accountable for equal learning and degree attainment outcomes for all of our students – regardless of ethnicity, family income, or parental educational background – we need to keep examining our data and reimagining institutional practices to promote inclusive excellence. 

In the California State University system, we foster cultures of evidence to increase graduation rates for all CSU students while eliminating equity and opportunity gaps. Our innovative Certificate Program in Student Success Analyticsprovides CSU faculty, staff, and administrators with a set of strategies to actively share in this mission. Rather than just trusting that “a rising tide will lift all boats,” we want to understand which best practices enable our students to succeed and build them to scale. 

A focus on equity becomes increasingly important as higher education undergoes drastic demographical changes. Students previously minoritized and deemed “non-traditional” now make up large parts of our increasingly diverse student body demographics. The traditional image of a campus full of “first-time, full-time”  students has been replaced with a more complex and diverse picture that prominently features returning adult learners, first-generation students, and commuters from all races, circumstances and backgrounds, especially at large public universities and community colleges. 

In the wake of these changing demographics, what do faculty, staff, and administrators at colleges and universities need to learn to adapt to these shifts? The onus is on the institution to ensure it doesn’t perpetuate inequities that have placed our students on unequal footing long before they ever entered through our doors. 

Nele Hempel-Lamer, Ph.D., is the Director of the California State University Certificate Program in Student Success Analytics. She presented at the #2019ARC on Wednesday, April 10 during a session entitled, “The Equity Gap: Actionable Data, Better Decisions.” 

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