In the November/December 2022 issue, Brittany Motley, the higher education consultant at the consulting firm EAB, shares advice on equity.
How did you come to be at EAB?
BM: Interestingly, I was attending a CONNECTED conference as a partner, and I noticed the lack of diversity in the consultants. So, I asked a woman there who worked for EAB, “Where are the black consultants?” After a brief conversation she handed me her card and a short time later I was interviewing for EAB and seeking to pay it forward in the same way for any interested applicants of color.
I love working in the higher education sector and wanted to make a larger impact by working with multiple institutions instead of being employed at one. EAB provides the scale and reach for me to be able to do that.
Nothing excites my passion more than thinking of access and fairness for underserved populations. I have always been concerned about equity in the higher education sector specifically because I have both an empathetic and experiential lens on the matter. I worked with underserved students extensively, and I also identified as an underserved student when I was in school.
Throughout my career in higher education, I have personally witnessed students’ lives become compromised in numerous ways as a result of the higher education system. In my personal student experience, I was faced with many barriers to earning my degree simply because of my socioeconomic status. For example, I was chosen for FAFSA verification every year. This caused me to wait up to two weeks before I could start classes each term. Because of my experiences, I decided I wanted to devote my life to ‘fixing the equity problem’ but like many others, I had no idea how to approach it.
Where can leaders on university and college campuses start when it comes to working toward improving equity on campus?
BM: They can start with deep reflection. One must fully understand the systemic barriers on campus and all factors contributing to them before attempting reform. One of my favorite educational activists Paulo Freire notes “Acting without reflecting on why people are oppressed can lead to further oppression.” He advises that educators utilize praxis — combining reflection with action when thinking about how to remove systemic barriers.
How do you define “equity gap”?
BM: Equity gaps refer to disparities in educational outcomes and student success metrics across race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, physical or mental abilities, and other immutable demographic traits and intersectionalities. These gaps often signal current practices and procedures are not effectively supporting all student groups.
I think it’s important to note an equity gap is not the problem. It is typically the symptom of the problem: the problem of systemic oppression that is rooted in a sociohistorical context. We cannot talk about racial gaps in college degree attainment without talking about the residue that systemic oppression has left on higher education. Specifically, the longstanding history of school segregation, the legacy of redlining, and the impact of mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline.
The disparities in our education outcomes are a direct extension of how racism, enshrined in our laws and institutions, persist into the present. If we are to close equity gaps in postsecondary education, we must understand these sociohistorical contexts.
What are the biggest obstacles to closing the equity gap on campus?
BM: The biggest obstacle is gaining trust and engagement with the initiative. In order to cultivate trust, it takes leaders to effectively communicate what it takes to eliminate equity gaps on campus. This is done through sharing the imperative with qualitative and quantitative data, and sharing how we systemically approach this with tangible first steps that all stakeholders can identify with.
What are two to three best practices you’ve seen on campuses to close the equity gap?
BM: Hold reform, retention grants, and improving transfer Pathways have proven very effective in generating quick and long-term wins for each campus that has implemented them. California State University, Fullerton focused its equity initiatives on holds. They audited all of their registration holds to see the data on how many holds were being sent and broke it down by ethnicity. While this data told a compelling story of how African American and Hispanic students received 10-times more holds compared to other students, Fullerton wanted to be sure they were understanding the impact of holds on their students.
Fullerton went a step further and collected qualitative data on how students felt about their holds. They asked if students felt encouraged or discouraged on a Likert scale when receiving holds. Students who received holds were highly discouraged by them. Imagine receiving a hold because of your socioeconomic status, how demoralizing that may be for an underserved student to constantly be reminded in a penal manner about their social identity.
I believe data collection has to go beyond quantitative to truly understand the full scope of the problem. The Southeastern Wisconsin cohort of schools participating in EAB’s Moon Shot for Equity ran hold audits at each campus and discovered certain holds had disproportionate impact. As a result, they changed bursar thresholds and implemented retention grants to make up for unpaid balances. One of the schools, the University of Wiscosin-Milwaukee, enrolled an additional 500 students this fall because of this work. It completely eliminated equity gaps for students who received their retention grants.
What influence do higher ed leaders have in terms of impacting the social systems on campus?
BM: One of the most difficult tasks for higher education leaders is running an institution while also simultaneously reinventing it — essentially having to build a plane while flying it. EAB hosted an equity roundtable to understand how leaders are thinking of equity. We invited 12 institutions from different sectors — two- and four-year schools — who are known for having success on closing equity gaps such as Georgia State University and the University of Houston. We then asked them:
Which scenario would you prefer?
- Scenario A: To increase graduation rates for all students equally.
- Scenario B: to increase the graduation rates or close the achievement gap for an underserved population. Scenario B implied those who were traditionally successful may stay the same or decrease slightly after focusing your attention to an underserved population.
The majority of the leaders in the room selected scenario A, to increase grad rates equally. When asked to unpack their reasoning, many revealed they “have to keep the lights on” and higher graduation rates yield more revenue.
As leaders began to reveal their competing commitments, I had a revelation. Leaders cannot devote all the time and resources they might like to equity initiatives because they are so busy wrestling with the pressures of state funding and other fiscal demands. How often do their competing commitments impact student success initiatives and their own decision-making? Can institutions really afford to close achievement gaps? EAB’s Pavani Reddy developed this provocative thought starter to understand when leaders say they are interested in equity, what do they really mean? Did they really mean focusing on underserved populations? Or do they want to improve student outcomes for all. Ultimately, we were gauging their interest and knowledge of equity versus equality.
What do empathy and adaptability have to do with improving equity? Why do leaders need these things?
BM: It’s through empathy that I changed my language of calling students “underrepresented,” to calling them “underserved.” Our historically minoritized students are here and represented. Where we are lacking is in our inability to “serve” said students appropriately. This shift in language can consequently shift our mindset.
Often our equity initiatives start from a deficit mindset, where we identify “at-risk students” and create special support for those populations. Identifying a student as “at-risk” can be unfair and harmful to the student. This term puts the onus on the student for their social identity — or whichever data points we collect to deem students at-risk. Shifting this onus from a student being at risk of failing to an institution being at risk of failing to serve all of its students appropriately is necessary in truly understanding the needs of students.
Often, we will see individuals say:
- “Our students need more grit and resilience.”
- “They won’t show up.”
- “How do we get them to care?” etc.
However, I think we often lack the reflective ability to say, “They’re not showing up yes, but are we engaging them properly?” Some leaders fail to ask themselves whether or not the institution is effectively communicating the impact of a student’s actions or decisions in a language they can understand. Or, perhaps our students are not lacking in resilience or grit at all. Maybe we should consider it an institutional failing when students find it difficult to adapt their learning styles to a higher education system that was originally created to serve the needs of wealthy white students.
Where do college leaders need more visibility in order to effectively improve equity on their campuses?
BM: Campuses need more visibility into the staff, faculty and student experience to truly understand how to enact change. This visibility is created through comprehensive data analysis and establishing virtuous feedback loops.
In working with partners, I typically approach equity initiatives with the “Plan, Act, Evaluate” model with a few nuances listed below:
- The first place to start is to define what equity means to the institution.
- Outline what equity looks like as it relates to their strategic plan, and their student success strategic plan if applicable.
- After defining what equity means and understanding its priority within institution initiatives, then one can begin information gathering on population(s) of focus:
- Dig into historical (mis)representation of populations of focus.
- Gather quantitative and qualitative data to get as much insight as possible on student experience — i.e. focus groups with staff, faculty students, community stakeholders, alumni. Be mindful of stereotype threat/identity threat and implicit bias when data gathering on vulnerable populations.
- After data collection, then act on initiatives.
- Evaluate the impact and iterate accordingly.