Equity Audits Would Strengthen Colleges and Universities

By Rosa Garcia

The recent scandal involving wealthy parents paying bribes to get their kids into elite colleges has raised questions about equity and basic fairness in postsecondary education. It has also elevated concerns that wealthy students and legacy applicants have an unfair advantage over low-income students and students of color in the college admissions process. And importantly, it surfaces the question: what responsibilities do federal and state policymakers and higher education leaders have in protecting the interests of all students, particularly low-income students and historically underrepresented students?

The question of fairness and equity in postsecondary education goes far beyond the college admissions scandal. In 2016, students of color comprised at least 45 percent of undergraduate students. Yet, people of color were underrepresented among higher education leaders, administrators, and full-time faculty—individuals who have the most influence in crafting institutional policies and practices. According to a report by the American Council on Education, 83 percent of college presidents identified as white, and 16.8 percent identified as people of color. Among faculty, full professorships were more likely to be held by whites. In fall 2016, 73 percent of full-time faculty employed by higher education institutions were white, and 21 percent were faculty of color.  Among instructors, lecturers, and faculty with no academic rank at all types of institutions, a larger share were American Indian or Alaska Native faculty, Black faculty, Latino faculty and faculty of more than one race.
While states like California have adopted laws to identify equity gaps in postsecondary education and are moving in the right direction, higher education systems, states, and institutions nationwide must do more to advance equity. Federal and state policymakers and higher education leaders must make clear that a critical component of quality is an institution’s ability to admit, retain, promote student success, and foster healthy and equitable campus climates for a diverse range of students.  

One bill that merits serious consideration is the “College Equity Act of 2019,” S. 943/H.R. 2006. Introduced by Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Representative Donna Shalala (D-FL), this legislation would authorize grants to incentivize institutions of higher education to address institutional inequities and improve student outcomes. Institutions would use the grants to conduct equity audits to identify gaps by race, ethnicity, income, national origin, gender, or transfer status and among students who are parenting, first-generation attenders, have disabilities, or face other challenges in posecondary education. The audits would include a thorough internal review of institutional practices, including admissions policies, financial aid processes, faculty and staff diversity, access to campus support services, credit transfer policies, and other practices. Under the bill, institutions would share findings with higher education accrediting agencies, and accreditors would provide technical assistance to help address the findings from the equity audit and share best practices. That’s why CLASP strongly supports the College Equity Act of 2019.

As Congress considers the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, federal and state lawmakers and institutions of higher education have an opportunity to recognize how our nation’s college campuses, workforce, and economy benefit from the immense contributions of low-income students, students of color, immigrants, and adult working students. By highlighting and rectifying disparities in postsecondary education at every level of an institution, we can help promote greater access to high-quality education and improve student outcomes for all. 

Along with authorizing equity audit grants, Congress must continue to strengthen the capacity of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Predominantly Black Institutions, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions, Native American-Serving Nontribal Institutions, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions and scale up innovative models of student success at community colleges. Combined, these colleges and universities enroll large concentrations of low-income students, students of color, immigrants, and adult students and serve as engines of social and economic mobility.