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Problem Statement

The purpose of this kit is to better understand some of the strategies for tackling the problem of equity at your institution. If an institution has not widely engaged the campus in the urgent need to respond to equity--and made the local institutional case for widespread transformation--most strategies will have little sustained impact. Strategies for acting on the equity agenda need to be seen as part of “systems change,” in that are both concrete practices, as well as part of a large web of reinforcing changes. Strategies need to be community-focused, engaging key change agents, with plans for broader inclusion.

New practices to promote equity must be learner-centered in their design and execution, while at the same time engaging the core practices and interests of faculty and staff. Strategies for advancing the equity agenda range from engaging the Admissions process more holistically, focusing on getting students robustly through the first-year, identifying particular pathways through academic programs that may have unintentional barriers, and understand the needs of transfer students--especially those from Community Colleges--as well as “migration pathways” as students move among schools within your institution.

In considering the above, we’ve begun to map out a set of approaches. The first part of this kit aims to set up a high level framing that outlines a brief description of this challenge, some threshold concepts, and barriers that you may identify for your campus community to take on. Part two drills down into four subtopics that we view as critical to the success of the overarching mission of scaling and sustaining equity practices.

Threshold concepts

  • Every selective institution will be negotiating between the consequences of exclusion (selectivity and the pursuit of elite indicators) and inclusion. Strategies and practices need to acknowledge and work with that tension.
  • Cultural change requires clear intent, modeling, and time.
  • In order to catalyze change, every stakeholder must be thought of and act as a change agent.
  • Faculty are the key to any successful change strategy, they are partners, not hurdles.
  • Administrators & staff have to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset.
  • Focusing on student experience will mitigate all other issues.
  • Designing for institutional change requires moving beyond “why can’t we” to “how might we."
The term ‘threshold concept,’ for those who are not familiar, comes from pedagogical theory. It is defined by Jan Meyer and Ray Land as “a concept that, once understood, changes the way that a person thinks about a topic…It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something” that makes possible further understanding, “without which the learner cannot progress” (Meyer and Land, “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge,” 2003). Like thresholds in the doorway to a room, not recognizing a threshold concept can cause one to trip when trying to gain entry and make progress a new area of ideas. And like thresholds in the doorway to a room, once you know about the existence, you unthinkingly step over it and fail to recognize the barrier it might be for another person's entry. We use it here, analogously, to start identifying those essential concepts that are necessary for an institution to understand, in order to make further progress on equity.


  • Campus positions are siloed. Faculty don't often interact with student affairs/counseling or diversity offices, making it difficult to share research and best practices, and resulting in that those attempting to be leaders for equity feel like they are isolated and without support.
  • Bureaucracy & red tape. It's complicated once you have the desire and knowledge to be a leader for equity to get in front of the right decision makers with power on campus.
  • Lack of incentive. Although some campuses now include equity work as part of their tenure track reward structure, more often these leadership roles are not only not supported by any institutional incentive but are viewed as potentially lessening stature.
  • Lack of diverse leadership representation/cultural competency. Most existing leadership roles on campus are still filled by those with historical privilege; we need to not only support their work but advance leadership for others who mirror the student body. In addition, those with privilege may come to this work with a "white savior" mindset, even if well-meaning.
  • Student voice isn't valued. Students are often missing from the table in conversations on equity, inclusion, and diversity.


What emerged from these sessions that could expand the Resource Kits?

  1. Urgency Resources: Problem Statement, Threshold Concepts, Barriers[How would you annotate or revise?]
  2. Core Library Resources: Examples, Cases, Readings[Please add, annotate readings or cases relevant to these sessions; or, reference literature or cases in the core library.]

Bringing a holistic approach to admissions

Achieving equity at selective institutions of higher education requires equity at the point of input as well as equity in the educational experience – a “to and through” model of equity. The scale of the admissions review, relationships with high schools, and community colleges, and an institution’s selectivity all shape the admissions process. Yet for all this diversity, we also share common challenges. In this session we will discuss the challenges of designing and pursuing an equitable admissions process.

Starting Questions:

  1. How connected is your admissions process with your campus equity work? Who is responsible for this connection?
  2. Admissions starts with recruitment. What (implicit or explicit) recruitment strategies and policies do you have in place that seek, deter, and/or manage equity in your applicant pool?
  3. How can institutions engage in holistic application review at scale? Where are scale management strategies supportive of or a deterrent to equity?

Extending the Conversation Questions:

  1. How do you evaluate the equity of your admissions process?
  2. The cost of attendance deters applicants. For campuses with limited financial aid resources, how do we balance the intersection of admissions and financial aid? Can you afford to be ‘need blind’? How can you achieve a goal of ‘meets full need’?
  3. What effect do the current lawsuits targeting affirmative action in admissions practices have on your campus admissions’ policies and practices?
  4. What impact does your campus’ choice to participate (or not) in the Common Application and/or the Coalition Application have on equitable outcomes in your applicant pool?
  5. How does your application form either deter applicants from sharing their best selves or impede equitable review processes?
  6. What role will the new SAT Adversity Score serve in your campus admissions’ process? How can it best be used? What about the ACT test-takers?

Getting to and through the first-year coursework

A “to and through” model of equity should focus institutions on the student’s first-year experience. Some of the challenges associated with the first year include equitable approaches to critical “gateway courses,” time management, the “hidden curriculum” that shapes success, and an overall sense of belonging. Gateway courses, in particular, often struggle with multiple demands - serving as the transition point from high school to college academic expectations and enrolling large numbers of students. In this session we will discuss the challenges and opportunities around designing for equity within your institution's first-year course work and broader experience.

Starting Questions:

  1. Which entities on your campus work directly on the first-year experience? What role do they play in designing for equity within the course work students are assigned?
  2. What new connections might you forge between faculty, academic advising, and student affairs to create a more holistic support system for first year students? What key indicators are available to help faculty and staff find and assist students at academic risk?
  3. In what ways are first-year students overly challenged (or under-challenged) by the general education curriculum? Is there a model of general education classes that would be more equitable and meaningful for students?

Extending the Conversation Questions:

  1. How might we use data or key indicators to determine the extent to which various phases of the first-year experience are equitable? How impactful are disparities in K-12 education in your discipline to student success in college courses?
  2. Does your institution have bridge programs to serve the students most at risk? How do you avoid issues of stigma and being singled out? What could more heterogenous and inclusive programs look like?
  3. Does your campus offer a first year seminar? Is it credit-bearing? Required? Who teaches it? How effective is it? How could it support the diversity and equity agenda?
  4. Are entry courses considered ‘gatekeepers’ or ‘gateways’? How are these designations implicitly or explicitly conveyed by pedagogies, grading policies, content and other areas?
  5. How can opportunities to see and experience a diversity of career opportunities and to try on different professional identities have a positive impact students’ first-year experiences?

Working within academic units to identify specific disciplinary barriers and solutions

Traditional curricular structures and pedagogies emerged at a time when a very narrow demographic of students reached higher ed and single career longevity was the norm. We now have very diverse students who are heading out on very dynamic career journeys. But the disciplines have been slow to catch up and transform their curriculum. In this session we will explore where curricular and programmatic legacy structures of often don't fit the needs of today.

Starting Questions:

  1. To what extent are various departments and programs encouraged and incentivized to discover and develop solutions for the barriers facing their program? How can we increase the level of encouragement and incentives?
  2. What academic units are currently not participating in the discussion on equity? What organizational changes need to be adjusted in order to have their voices heard and perspectives added?
  3. What curricular structures and/or pedagogies typical to your discipline stand in the way of equity? How visible are different pathways to students, faculty, academic advisors? Where do existing pathways make false assumptions about student populations?

Extending the Conversation Questions:

  1. In what ways do we currently identify the barriers and challenges facing students within specific academic programs? How might these data collection tools reach a more diverse population of students and increase the quality and accuracy of other findings?
  2. How can institutions and programs overcome a lack of faculty diversity in some disciplines to serve as role models for a more diverse student population?
  3. How do academic units work with an experiential learning center and/or career center to embed academic work in a broader context?
  4. How might the challenges and barriers facing faculty and students in the classroom receive sufficient interest from University administrators in terms of creating policy around equity and inclusion?

Understanding and facilitating student migration and transfer pathways

While we often think of students as progressing through a linear college trajectory, most students’ academic paths resemble shrubs with many branches. Many students enter college with AP or accelerated high school credits; others migrate between different schools or majors within an institution. Nearly 40% of graduating students have transferred at least once, many from community colleges. Most colleges have yet to reckon with the implications of this new paradigm for curriculum, pedagogy and academic support. In this session we will seek to understand and strategize around facilitating student migration and transfer pathways.

Starting Questions:

  1. Do you understand student migration patterns at your institution? Why do students change majors?
  2. What types of new academic support structures would benefit all students –particularly those who are lower-income and/or first-generation?
  3. How does your university work with and support transfer students, especially those from community colleges? What programs and structures are in place to support them? How effective are they? What else should be done?

Extending the Conversation Questions:

  1. To what extent is migratory fluidity seen as a strength - e.g., a desired outcome of a broad core requirement - and to what extent is it seen as a barrier to sustained disciplinary engagement?
  2. How might the university re-evaluate its self-service materials and websites related to transfer and migration for clarity, usefulness, and inclusivity?
  3. What kinds of transfer partnerships does your university have with community colleges in your area? How might you effectively collect both qualitative and quantitative institutional data to make a compelling big-picture case to why the transfer of community college students contributes to the university’s strategic plan? How could you expand or strengthen those partnerships and ensure that they embody mutual respect?
  4. How does your university build a sense of belonging for community college transfer students on campus? What institutional policies and practices (about transfer, scholarships, honors, etc.) operate as barriers to the full embrace of community college transfers? How might those be rethought? What input could you get from transfer students and area community colleges that would help you make your processes more effective and equitable?