Undergraduate excellence must include equity, says the Influential Group

Is undergraduate education, which is about setting the bar and rewarding those students who reach it, or providing the support necessary for all students to succeed? A new report from the leaders of major U.S. research universities and higher education organizations comes down firmly on the side of equity. In doing so, the authors challenge long-held, if increasingly outdated, notions that rigorous education requires weeding out less talented or poorly equipped students.

Rather, they argue, the university’s primary mission should be to ensure that students who arrive at college with fewer educational, social, or financial resources are equipped to succeed on a par with their peers.

“Defining excellence in terms of equity, rather than, say, selectivity and sorting, confounds at least 70-odd years of practice,” say the authors in The Equity-Excellence Imperative: A 2030 Blueprint for Undergraduate Education in US Research Universities. ” “Equity-based excellence requires us to think differently why we do what we do, not just what we do and how we do it.

The report was prepared by the Boyer 2030 Commission of the Association for Undergraduate Education of Research Universities, which consists of current and former university leaders, researchers and leaders of higher education organizations. It is an update of sorts to the original Boyer Commission, convened by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in the 1990s. Of this group recommendations, cutting edge upon release, are now considered must-haves for modern undergraduate education. These include emphasizing interdisciplinary work, developing students’ communication skills, and creative use of information technology.

The 2030 report is comprehensive, covering not only what kind of education students should receive, but also approaches to effective teaching, advising, faculty compensation systems, curriculum structure, credit transfer, technology and mental health. Through the narrative, the authors outline the ways in which traditional approaches to these dimensions of college favor students from better-resourced backgrounds, and why this must change.

The report begins by noting that most students at public and private research universities identify as white, even though the student body is increasingly diverse, that black and Hispanic students have significantly lower six-year graduation rates than white students, and that the percentage of undergraduate Pell Grant recipients has declined since 2010 .

“In today’s world, you cannot be a great institution unless you are also an equitable and inclusive institution,” said Barbara Snyder, president of the Association of American Universities, the commission’s co-chair. “The data shows that we are not doing as well as we could or as well as we need and as we want. So we try to be specific about what things can make a difference.

The Commission chose the word “plan” for a reason: to provide colleagues with specific ideas for improving outcomes through specific types of interventions and reforms. “It’s not just theoretical,” Snyder said. “We’re trying to show real examples of how this can be done at different research universities around the country.”

In advocating that all undergraduate students receive an education that integrates career preparation, the humanities, and a strong general education foundation, they highlight the work of Purdue University, for example. Cornerstone a program that aims to do just that.

In today’s world, you cannot be a great institution unless you are also a fair and inclusive institution.

In the areas of access and affordability, the report says, full-time students can graduate in four years — without excessive course loads or summer jobs, which are difficult for low- and middle-income students. But it will require a review of many aspects of the curriculum, and it will start by analyzing data on how students move through each degree program to see where there are equity gaps.

Courses known for dropping students, those with high rates of Ds, Fs, and dropouts, complex prerequisite sequences, and majors with so many requirements that students must take large courses or spend more time registering, “ all encourage ‘self-selection’, masking deeper forms of discrimination and other barriers to excellent education,” the report says. It highlights several colleges and programs which aims to make such paths clearer.

Making teaching reforms the norm

In the field of educational reform, the report describes a number of strategies supported by evidence that they lead to improved outcomes. This includes using low-stakes tasks and flipping classrooms so that meeting time is spent focusing on group discussion and problem solving.

Although many educators have used such techniques for years with considerable success, the report does not say that these approaches are not yet professional standards. “You can still enter a classroom where inclusive pedagogy has not been thought about,” it is noted. “Teachers do not routinely review each other’s knowledge of pedagogy, course design, and inclusive practices. Systematic adoption of such practices remains elusive, leaving their full benefits for equity capital and excellence unrealized.

Despite these limited advances, the authors remain optimistic that the cultural and structural changes necessary for widespread adoption can occur.

“We emphasize that there is an overwhelming body of evidence to support the effectiveness of these strategies,” said Peter McPherson, co-chair of the commission and president emeritus of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. “We are an evidence-based set of institutions. We produce this research and literature. Now we need to implement it widely.

Another concern is the differential use of high-impact practices. They are a set of activities, including undergraduate research, internships and study abroad programs, that reformers have long argued increase student engagement and retention. Research shows that black and Hispanic students who participate in high-impact internships during their first year of college make greater gains in retention and grades than white students, according to the report.

However, the report notes that “significant barriers to equal access remain”. For example, in the 2019 National Student Engagement Survey, 51 percent of white students said they participated in an internship, compared to 40 percent of black students. Lack of time, money, and awareness are some of the reasons why students do not participate in high-impact internships.

Lowering or removing barriers, such as incorporating experiential learning into coursework, is critical to closing these gaps. McPherson noted that when he was president of Michigan State University, the institution was able to significantly increase the percentage of students who studied abroad by creating more short-term programs and finding other ways to reduce costs and increase accessibility. Similarly, Snyder said, universities can work with corporations to ensure that the internships they offer are paid.

Leadership is critical to the success of change, the report concludes. But leaders should ensure that reforms are a team effort: they should empower departments, involve students, and draw on the expertise of support units such as teaching and learning centers and institutional research offices. In other words, “be inclusive in these reforms.”

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