From June 5-7, faculty, staff, and students from over 40 U.S. higher education institutions attended the fourth annual Summer Institute on Equity in the Academic Experience, an in-person and virtual conference hosted by Georgetown University. Described as a working institute, the conference assembled teams from educational institutions around the country who are developing programs that make education access and outcomes more equitable for low-income and first-generation students and students from underserved communities. Attendance was free of charge thanks to funding from the American Talent Initiative—of which Georgetown is a founding member—and the combined support of 10 institutions that functioned as host sites, which provided planning and staff support and gathered teams from other institutions to create a network of peers in equity work.
Equity work that aims to reduce systemic obstacles to higher education, such as lack of academic support, funding, and resources, is often siloed within specific departments or away from institutions’ core mission, leaving staff feeling secluded, specifically those who are from historically underrepresented communities. The conference offered opportunities for collaboration by ensuring teams from participating universities had time each day to present equity-based projects they were working on at their respective institutions and receive feedback from experts in the field.
“For most of us, the work that we do wasn’t modeled for us as we took our own journeys through higher education,” Georgetown Associate Professor Heidi Elmendorf, director of the Hub for Equity and Innovation in Higher Education, said in a welcome message with fellow Equity Institute organizers Randy Bass, Georgetown English professor and vice president for Strategic Education Initiatives, and Susannah McGowan, director of curriculum transformation initiatives at the Red House. “We’re still a pioneering group of first-generation equity practitioners.”
Teams attending this year’s institute received meaningful feedback on equity-work at their respective institutions. “The Summer Equity Institute was an incredible opportunity to bring a group of campus colleagues together in the same space to both learn from efforts at other institutions and dialogue with one another to innovate, imagine, and create a plan of action for our campus,” said Dr. Louie F. Rodriguez, vice provost and dean at the University of California Riverside. “Our emerging plan has the momentum to potentially scale our equity goals for student success.”
“The format of the institute —‘come with a problem, leave with a plan’ combined with deeply thought-provoking speakers and insightful coaches was incredibly helpful,” noted Alicia Slater, Dean of the School of Science and professor of biology at Marist College.
“The process allowed us to define, then refine our problem, receive meaningful feedback, and emerge with a plan that included smaller, more immediate successes as well as a road map for building the infrastructure necessary to address more complex long-term equity issues.”
‘Provoking’ thoughtful discussions
At the Institute,experts and advocates discussed long-standing challenges to access and affordability in higher education and new challenges to equity work, such as the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s decision on race-conscious affirmative action and concerns about rising college costs and mental health problems among students.
Each day began with “provocations” by featured speakers, followed by panels in which teams presented interventions they used to increase student success, white papers exploring the current state of higher education and career development, and plans for recommitting to diversity in a political environment resistant to diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. Some of the topics the 18 panels evaluated included:
- Building college-to-career pathways that work for all students
- The impact of artificial intelligence on efforts to promote equitable academic experiences
- Ways equity-work practitioners care for themselves and their communities
- Legal options and bipartisan efforts for retaining diversity as a goal in higher ed admissions
- The limits of the concepts of belonging and potential of mattering
- De-siloing equity work across the college campuses
Establishing better arguments for equity
In the first provocation, Olufemi Ogundele, associate vice chancellor of admissions and enrollment at the University of California, Berkeley, said justifying equity initiatives to educators can feel like preaching to the choir, but “the choir needs practice.” He advised attendees to better define what diversity is and why it matters in ways unique to each institution, including why it’s essential for a school’s business model and institutional mission. “We really need to make sure that our arguments for diversity are localized and contextualized to our institutions and they are grounded in research,” he said.
Since his arrival at UC-Berkeley, Ogundele’s efforts have led to two of the most ethnically and geographically diverse classes enrolled at the university in three decades, despite California outlawing race-conscious admissions in 1996. That success involved rethinking conventional ideas about building diverse student populations and pursuing new avenues for recruitment, such as establishing new relationships with schools in diverse communities and revising hiring practices to make sure the university had the structures in place to support their overall mission.
Centering student experiences
“Do we think that higher education can learn to love its students again?” asked Paul J. LeBlanc, Ph.D. president of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), in his provocation. LeBlanc explained how SNHU—the largest nonprofit provider of online higher education in the country—has worked to support low-income and non-traditional college students who have work and family obligations that compete with their academic commitments by building a learning-based, competency-based model that is asynchronous. To support students, the university also invested in building an advising network with advisor-to-student ratios similar to those at selective institutions.
LeBlanc posited that U.S. colleges and universities can better support their students by investing in structural and equitable models that put students first and ensure they feel a sense of “mattering,” or a “feeling you are seen and known, that you are invested in, that you actually have shaping power on the organization which sees you,” LeBlanc said.
Redefining student success
In the institute’s third and final provocation, Amelia Parnell, Ph.D. vice president for research & policy at NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, redefined student success to meet 2023 challenges, as the value of a college education faces increased scrutiny and skepticism. “Over the next five years, the higher education industry will experience even more disruption, innovation, and criticism,” Parnell said.
To respond to this new, complex dynamic, she suggested that, in addition to measuring retention, persistence, and graduation rates, educators incorporate new key indicators that demonstrate how higher education can prepare students for post-college careers and civic engagement. According to these new metrics, students should be able to:
- Interpret information from multiple sources and determine which details are useful to make decisions
- Realize the scope of various political, social, economic, educational, health, and other systems
- Commit to a self-authored mission statement that guides their personal and professional aspirations
- Develop expertise in one or more areas that will challenge their creativity and create opportunities to support their needs
“If we pursue this updated definition of success,” Parnell said, “our resulting actions will prove that college is still worth the investment.”
For more information, visit the 2023 Summer Institute website, featuring recordings of provocations and panel sessions.