Action Over Words: Higher Education’s Day of DEI Reckoning Has Arrived

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Recently, I attended a conference and took my usual walk through the vendor exhibits. You can always get a vibe on the state of the industry when you survey what products and services are addressing the market. 

Overwhelmingly, more than half the vendors were selling some solution to enrollment and retention. This is no surprise as higher education enrollments have declined significantly in recent years. There is also no disputing that underserved populations of students are disproportionately impacted by failing to attain a degree and leaving largely with debt and no viable path for a career. 

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is being framed as a political weapon these days, but the truth is that our economy requires that we produce a viable workforce and it serves no one if we are failing to include all people as educated, viable contributors in our society. We must design a student experience that enables the success of all learners. 

In a recent study by Hanover Research, nearly 1/3 of students surveyed (regardless of their identity) do not believe their coursework adequately incorporates diverse perspectives. More than 1/2 of students feel singled out based on their identity and many feel isolated or left out based on their identity. 

Factors That Hinder Student Persistence

Students fail to persist for several different reasons. The top reasons cited in a recent study by Sallie Mae include the following:

  • 40% Change in motivation, focus, or a life change

  • 19% Financial

  • 14% Mental health

  • 7% Social aspects or school life

All of these factors are even more pronounced among underserved student populations. 

We see that in the following statistics from Educationdata.org illustrating disparity not only in graduation rate, but also in who is participating in the first place:

  • White or Caucasian students in bachelor’s programs have a five-year graduation rate of 62.2%.

    • 2,410,070 or 59.1% of college graduates are White or Caucasian.

  • Hispanic or Latino students in bachelor’s programs have a five-year graduation rate of 41.5%.

    • 532,720 or 13.1% of college graduates are Hispanic or Latino.

  • Black or African American students in bachelor’s programs have a five-year graduation rate of 40.5%.

    • 1% of college graduates are Black or African American.

What can institutions do to better support DEI?

If institutions want to stop their enrollment and retention bleeding they need to not only say they care about DEI, but also follow through with systematic ways to address these concerns and start to design for the large populations of learners who are presently systematically an afterthought. 

Some initial areas to focus improvement efforts include:

Social Supports

  • Establishing peer and mentor relationships for students

  • Curating systemic supports for diverse learners both socially and academically

  • Training for faculty and staff to create awareness of the importance and subtleties of DEI (we can not fix what we can not see, and we can not see what does not directly impact us)

Financial Supports

  • Re-evaluating availability of financial aid, including grant options instead of loans for low income and minority students

  • Work first pathways with employer benefits for cover tuition costs, and other pathways through employer partnerships

  • Surrounding supports for transportation and child care

Academic Supports

  • Tutoring and coaching services – especially targeting demographics of learners such as first year students, or first generation students.

Curriculum Content and Delivery 

  • Training for faculty and staff and external audits of programs using a rubric to objectively evaluate ways to ensure opportunities for more diverse, equitable, and inclusive learning experiences are not an afterthought.

How Ease Learning Can Help

Ease Learning is focused on the design of online programs, which offers many avenues for adult, underserved students. We created a DEI Rubric to ensure that programs foster a safe learning space for all voices.

We provide an external, neutral lens for DEI program audits and design recommendations deploying our rubric, and suggest opportunities for DEI curriculum improvements.

Laurie Pulido is the Founder and CEO of Ease Learning.

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