Action In Equity

I was excited and pleased earlier in the month to take part in an equity summit organized by the Partnership for College Completion, a Chicago-based nonprofit. The PCC’s work is in technical support, educational policy and public awareness of college access, affordability and college completion in Illinois. A key aim of the organization is to improve outcomes through attention to equity. White and Asian students graduate from Illinois college and universities at a higher rate than Hispanic or Black students. If the institutions of higher education in the state could eliminate the equity gap in student performance, graduation rates would soar. The data is sobering. The PCC’s report on this is worth your consideration.

Senator Dick Durbin opened the equity summit with inspiring words and a frank assessment of the work that needs to be done. Approximately 200 higher education professionals from twenty-five higher education institutions in northern Illinois (2-year, 4-year, public and private), along with some students, attended the event. We spent the day talking and learning about equity. All of our institutions signed on to what PCC calls the Illinois Equity in Attainment. This is a collaborative and ambitious program: we have promised to eliminate racial and socioeconomic student achievement gaps by 2025.

Our work on equity is extraordinarily important to our students, our communities and our colleges. The event also reminded me of just how far we have come in higher education in the past twenty years.

In 1998, William Bowen and Derek Bok’s The Shape of the River was published. Subtitled the “Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions,” this book was an extremely influential data-rich study of 45,000 students and the impact of race on admissions. Bowen had been president of Princeton University. Bok was president of Harvard. The book was based on extensive analysis of students from a number of selective four-year institutions. It garnered awards and heightened awareness, I think, about the vital role that colleges and universities could play in addressing racial biases. It was a critical major work that resonated across higher education and in public policy circles about race, equity, and outcomes. It made compelling arguments for thoughtful inclusion.

William Bowen followed that effort seven years later, along with Martin Kurzweil and Eugene Tobin, with an equally important book: Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education. Drawing from history, social science, policy, comparative data and detailed analysis, the book focused on access, equity and outcomes at nineteen selective institutions. Equity and Excellence won awards and generated a great deal of attention from scholars, educators, and policy-makers.

The book uses robust data to argue, effectively and compellingly, that institutions should put a “thumb on the scale” when it comes to admissions for low-income and first generation college students. The authors demonstrated that established practices limited access and social mobility. They also made clear that excellent student outcomes were readily attainable if equity was part of the admissions process. It was a provocative argument then, forcing many institutions and their leaders to think through admissions processes. It remains an important argument in the ongoing conversation about admissions and access.

The Shape of the River and Access and Equity were not the only major higher education studies to challenge established practice and push for greater attention to equity. Over the past twenty years, we have benefited from countless studies, reports, and books. It has been a movement. Today, I believe, the overall scope of the conversation in higher education has changed and grown. We have come a long way.

Attention to equity is now pervasive. Many of us who work in higher education “get” the value of equity in our thinking, our policies and our practices. We are learning more about equity and what is effective and what needs more attention. We are volunteering for equity work, like the ILEA summit, without funding structures or support. Not all the equity work is good, but there is an ever-increasing sense of its value. Most importantly, we are pursuing an equity agenda because we understand that at the very core of higher education’s mission is the importance of learning, advancement and growth. One cannot make that happen without appreciation of equity.

I am looking forward to next steps and the work of ILEA.

David Potash

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