5 unexpected barriers to equitable college student outcomes

Education research, technology, and services firm EAB recently identified 116 leading indicators of demographic disparities in student success metrics, highlighting the many opportunities for higher education leaders to improve college student outcomes. In addition to sharing a comprehensive list—developed through research interviews, literature reviews, and analyses of student success data—EAB highlights five unexpected barriers worth a closer look. 

Those include the impact grading practices have on student success. A UCLA study shows that students of color, women, and low-income students perform worse in large courses that grade on a curve, compared with courses using mastery-based grading. The problem is particularly noticeable in STEM courses, where perceived competition can fuel imposter syndrome among first-generation students.

Financial hurdles

Bursar holds that block students from registering for classes are another barrier to equitable college student outcomes, EAB says. Designed to hold students accountable for outstanding balances, bursar holds often disproportionately affect students of color and low-income students. When institutions bar registration over very small amounts, they not only create barriers to persistence but also “senselessly lose enrollment.”

Basic needs insecurity is similarly pernicious, given its potential to “compoun[d] other inequities.” Without adequate food and housing, students are likely to fall behind in coursework, threatening completion.

Campus climate and remedial education

Looking at campus climate, EAB highlights the impact a negative “diversity” event, or racist experience, can have on student learning. One study in the Journal of Higher Education, covered by Inside Higher Ed, for instance, found that racist incidents can have a detrimental effect on the cognitive and critical thinking skills of all students.

Finally, EAB calls attention to developmental and remedial math requirements—classrooms where students of color and low-income students tend to be overrepresented. A mere 17 percent of students who enroll in these courses ultimately graduate from college.

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