For higher education to close the equity gap, institutional leaders must address the impact that foundational elements in several areas have on degree achievement

6 ways to advance equitable access in higher education

For higher education to close the equity gap, institutional leaders must address the impact that foundational elements in several areas have on degree achievement

In the spring of 2020, we saw life as we knew it largely disrupted due to the global pandemic. Society continues to weather its effects, which show up differently for various communities due to the persistence of systemic inequalities. Americans are looking for ways to obtain upward mobility, and historically, the best way to achieve this has been through higher education.

Not everyone has had equal access to higher education, and this issue appears to be deepening in certain sectors.  In response, colleges and universities can work to address the problem of access to higher education through a holistic, proactive approach.

Diversify Recruiting Efforts

Many high school students know what college they want to attend. They may have done their own research or been recruited through a high school visit or targeted marketing campaign due to their standardized test scores. While it is important to continue to recruit students who have a clear focus on college, students who may not appear to be ‘good candidates’ should not be overlooked. Institutions should actively recruit students from all backgrounds and educational experiences. These students should be given the opportunity to pursue higher education and provided the resources needed to guide them through the application process and transition to college. 

Increasing Student Advisement

Once students begin their college careers, the next step in removing barriers is increasing student advisement. Individual advisement is integral to a successful student experience, so expanding access to advising can play a crucial role in addressing equity gaps by giving students access to resources needed to succeed.

Advisors can help students become acquainted with what to expect in college and how to navigate the demands of their classes. They can also connect students with professional counseling and other resources needed when experiencing significant life challenges.  Many of today’s campuses typically have one advisor for every 300-400 students, making it difficult to provide this service at the capacity needed. Institutions must realize that while resources are a continual challenge, it is essential that they be directed to advisement so that students can receive individualized guidance.

Recognizing Earned Credit in Policy

It is now a reality that students may attend multiple colleges throughout their lifetime, especially as higher education becomes more comfortable with hybrid and online offerings. Students may transfer between institutions because of changes in life circumstances, or they may be moving from a community college to a four-year institution. If a student’s past learning experience is not adequately recognized in transfer, this creates barriers and further limits their access to opportunities. Loss of credit leads to students having to repeat coursework, take additional classes, and take out extra loans. This can cause delays in academic progress and degree achievement.

It is critical for institutions to consider whether their established policies and practices allow for the fair recognition of students’ prior learning experiences. Each institution has its own mission, goals, and transfer requirements, but colleges must balance accountability to these and the public.

One policy area institutions could review concerns the acceptance of technical coursework. Institutions must ask themselves, is knowledge gained from technical coursework allowed to be adequately recognized in their policies? Many students are discouraged when they find out that technical coursework is not always transferable, especially since this coursework helps students develop many valuable skills.

We must ask ourselves – are we doing our students, community colleges, and society due diligence in validating this type of education at four-year institutions? Are we adequately recognizing the impact this type of education has on the development of critical thinking and communication skills?  By not recognizing this coursework in transfer, we could be opening a doorway to discrediting a valid and societally valuable learning experience.

Recognizing Unconscious Bias in the Transfer Evaluation Process

Institutions should look for ways to reduce unconscious bias when evaluating past learned experiences. Unconscious bias can be seen in the view that community college coursework lacks rigor and is not ‘on par’ with lower-division coursework taught at a four-year institution. Such bias often leads to students being denied equivalent course credit and having to repeat classes.

When reviewing coursework for transfer, institutions often ask students to provide syllabi. While sometimes syllabi may be needed to evaluate courses for equivalency, requiring it for any initial credit award can act as a barrier. Those who have stopped out for a few years may have difficulty acquiring the requested syllabi and thus may never have their courses evaluated. Additionally, instructors teaching the same class at the same institution have different syllabi. Requiring these to evaluate courses can introduce the temptation to scrutinize the instructor, the texts, and the topics chosen in a way that loses sight of whether the coursework is largely comparable.

To reduce bias and provide consistency in the evaluation processes, institutions can consider initially evaluating transfer credit using the transfer institution’s official course description. If syllabi are needed for further evaluation, they can additionally be requested.

Automating Transfer Articulation

Sometimes, the transfer of credit is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. This less-structured method introduces inconsistencies and can potentially perpetuate unequal treatment. For example, students in the same class may receive different awards of credit, despite having experienced the same curriculum. 

One way to ensure consistency and fairness in all course decisions – and increase efficiency – is by

automating the transfer credit articulationprocess. Once a course from another institution is deemed an acceptable substitute, that decision should not have to be made again – unless there is a change in institutional curricula. Keeping and processing course transfer evaluations in a structured database allows decisions to be applied consistently via this one “source of truth.” Institutions can also increase transparency and accountability for students and their families by making transfer articulation decisions publicly available.

Educate Faculty about the Transfer Process

Transfer credit articulation decisions are often made by faculty. While faculty are experts in their field, this may be the first time they are deciding how courses, national exams, and military credit align with their institution’s coursework and degree requirements. Thus, it is essential to help faculty new to this role understand the transfer process at their institution by reviewing transfer policies, procedures, and best practices with them. Doing so ensures that they have the knowledge needed to understand the impact their decisions have on students’ ability to complete curricular requirements and that the evaluator can make fair and equitable decisions.

Ultimately, educational equity ensures that students from all backgrounds, socioeconomic levels, and ethnicities can earn their degrees and succeed in the workforce. This translates to applying practices that acknowledge that students in different circumstances face different barriers and therefore need equitable yet sometimes individual consideration.

For higher education to close the equity gap, institutional leaders must address foundational elements around recruitment, advising, mobility and the transfer of credit, and the impact these have on degree achievement. Society must do its part to meet students where they are and provide them with the guidance and resources needed to succeed.

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