We have long known that a college education is important in gaining skills for stable, well-paying jobs and developing a workforce. We have also long known about the disparities in outcomes of college students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. These educational inequalities affect long-term wage earnings and employment, and they go against the fundamental promise colleges make to prepare every student for future success.
But, there is a tool to identify and address these inequality issues that is rarely talked about on college campuses: equity audits. We need more of our colleges and universities to do them.
Equity audits are a comprehensive evaluation of inequities and serve as a benchmarking tool to identify and address disparities in school systems. They have become a popular method of analysis in K-12 schools. We should extend their reach to college campuses, addressing the stark disparities in outcomes for students today.
According to a 2018 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the total completion rate of all students who start a four-year public university is 65.7%. Broken down by race, six-year completion rates for students who started at a four-year public institution are: 47.6% for black students, 57.4% for Hispanic students, 72.1% for white students, and 76.7% for Asian students. Of all groups, black men had the lowest completion rate, 36.1%, and the highest dropout rate, nearly 50%.
However, these national results vary widely from campus to campus. For example, the Hispanic graduation rate at California State University, Fullerton is 60%, while about 33% of Hispanic students graduate at The University of Texas at San Antonio. In another comparison, the University of Florida had a black student graduation rate of 77% and a white student graduation rate of 80%. At the University of North Texas, made up of about the same number of students and similar racial demographics, the black graduation rate was 46.5% and the white graduation rate was 50%.
Why are there such drastic differences in graduation rates by race? Schools must look to answer what policies and procedures contribute to these outcomes. For instance, are students receiving the support they need from professors, administrators, writing centers and counseling services? How does financial aid play a role? Is the curriculum serving or harming students?
Equity audits can help to answer these questions. For example, Skyline College, an ethnically diverse school of 10,000 students just south of San Francisco, conducted an equity audit that looked at community connections, curriculum, communications and hiring, to improve student outcomes and graduation rates.
They specifically analyzed whether outreach efforts made the college accessible for potential first-generation college students, what practices in algebra courses affected equitable success in statistics, how faculty members shared information regarding financial aid opportunities, and whether current staffers and administrators were supportive of the student population.
The audit identified gaps in each of these areas and provided specific ways to improve, with the goal of aiding student outcomes.
Yet, equity audits like those conducted at Skyline College are hard to come by. But some lawmakers want to change that. In April of last year, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) introduced the College Equity Act, which would provide grants to incentivize higher ed institutions to conduct such equity audits. The audits would review policies and practices and identify what is failing to serve underrepresented students.
It would essentially work to increase the number of college equity audits and address questions such as disparities in graduation rates.
Unfortunately, the Senate read the bill twice and referred it to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, where it has been sitting for nearly a year. It is time we pass this bill in the Senate. It is time we conduct comprehensive equity audits at college and university campuses across the country.
It is time we work to address the disparities that exist in higher education, working toward more equitable college campuses with the tools offered by equity audits.
Annika Olson is the assistant director of policy research in the Institute of Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in Inside Higher Ed.