Equity: Everything and the Kitchen Sink

iStock / dolgachov

By Danette Howard

Equity seems to be the “it” term of the day when it comes to student success and college completion. You’d be hard pressed to find an institutional strategic plan or statewide task force report focused on increasing postsecondary attainment that doesn’t reference a commitment to equity, or its oft used counterparts, diversity, and inclusion.

Everyone’s talking about equity, and apparently, most stakeholders have embraced it — but equity can, and does, mean different things to different people. Unless we are clear about how we define equity within the context of post-high school attainment, it can become a catch-all phrase that includes everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. In fact, some might argue that the term is indeed in vogue, but is already overused without the requisite mechanisms in place to hold people accountable for their claims.

When it comes to equity, it’s still important to focus on race and ethnicity when examining access to and completion of high-quality post-high school credentials. At Lumina Foundation, our Equity Imperative highlights the importance of addressing issues of racial justice and fairness as we work to correct systemic disparities by redesigning the higher education system to ensure that all Americans have a shot at success.

A recent report by the American Council on Education suggests that some progress has been made in terms of increasing access. In 2016, the enrollment rate for African American young adults reached 36 percent, a 9-point increase from 20 years earlier. The rate for Latinos increased even more significantly, by 18 points to 38 percent.

This progress is welcome, but far from sufficient. And the picture is not as optimistic when considering attainment. For example, as Lumina’s new Stronger Nation report shows, 47 percent of whites have at least an associate degree, compared with 31 percent of African Americans, 25 percent of American Indians, and only 24 percent of Latinos. Those are shocking gaps for a nation trying to compete in a tech-driven, global economy. Simply put, as a matter of justice and fairness, these numbers represent an indictment of a system that is still hobbled by the legacy of our past.

Unfortunately, the inequities don’t end with differential enrollment, completion, and attainment rates. Students of color are also over-represented in educational sectors where they’re less likely to earn bachelor’s degrees and more likely to become ensnared in crippling debt.

While those of us who work in higher education are aware of these facts, it’s important to acknowledge why such patterns exist and continue to persist. Even after all forms of federal and grant aid are taken into account, students of color are more likely to require student loans to finance their postsecondary pursuits because of real differences in intergenerational wealth that exist by race and ethnicity.

In short, black and brown students are often not able to count on such resources as college savings plans, home equity lines of credit, or family inheritances due to systemic injustices that have led to today’s unequal outcomes. And while there is a great deal of research that suggests that earning a college degree is the best way to begin to chip away at these longstanding wealth disparities, research suggests that they will persist because of wage differentials and systematic racism within employment sectors.

Earlier this year, Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA), Doug Jones (D-AL), Catherine Matsos (D-NV), and Elizabeth Warren (D-CA) issued a letter to key stakeholders asking for their recommendations for how to address the inordinately adverse effects of student loan debt on African American, American Indian, Latino, and Pacific Islander students.

In their request, the senators stated that students of color are more likely to borrow to support their postsecondary education and training, to borrow greater amounts, and to be less likely to complete their educational programs or to repay their student loan debt — all of which leaves them in a more precarious position relative to their peers who had other options.

There are no easy answers, but we know some good places to start — for example:

  • All learning should count, regardless of where it’s acquired. High-quality degrees, certificates, and industry-recognized certifications, we now recognize, are all critical rungs on the ladder of social mobility.
  • In a complex, interconnected world economy, education and training are continuous pursuits. We must have embedded, well-articulated pathways that allow learners to get their evolving knowledge and skills recognized and validated, and for them to move seamlessly from one credential level to another. This is especially important for those who first earn sub-baccalaureate credentials.

A good sign in all of this is the willingness of different groups to work together. We give a lot of credit, for example, to companies that provide post-high school learning opportunities, including tuition remission and reimbursement, to their employees (especially those who are front-line workers). We’re seeing companies embrace the notion of worker-learners, individuals who can obtain new credentials while they are working and can also apply their work experience toward their credentials.

At Lumina we’re studying the impact of an education and training program announced last year by the nation’s largest employer. Walmart, with more than 1.3 million employees, is supporting access to college and university degree programs with coaching and financial support, and Lumina is working with the company and with an analytic firm to study how that investment pays off for both Walmart and its employees.

Other companies have found the value in growing talent through educational support. Discover Financial Services last fall announced its Discover College Commitment which covers 100 percent of select bachelor’s degrees. Disney, Lowes, and Taco Bell are among a select group of other companies partnering with Guild Education to offer such programs. We’ll be watching closely to see how these efforts impact completion rates for all students, and if they help to address gaps by race and ethnicity.

Indeed, there’s reason for optimism even if we still have a long way to go. If progress is still too slow in arriving, we have at least seen a brightening future in the recognition of what’s possible.

Racial justice and fairness must be at the center of a redesigned postsecondary system. While we recognize the challenges faced by first-generation students, and the burdens of class and income many endure, racial inequality has a grim history in our country that we can’t shy away from as we work to increase access, success and attainment. We must continue to confront it and recommit to dismantling it. Every single day.