The Supreme Court is currently weighing the merits of dismantling affirmative action, which was designed to eliminate unlawful discrimination among applicants, remedy the results of prior discrimination, and prevent future discrimination. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, institutions of higher learning must institute equitable practices and processes in their academic environments to equip graduates with skills that enable future employment and economic well-being.
It’s clear that academic institutions should offer education that is equitable and inclusive for all. While many institutions assert their commitment to equal opportunity in learning, equality is not a proxy for equity, which acknowledges differences and institutes processes to address barriers faced by students regardless of national origin, race, color, religion, disability, sex, and familial status. Educational “equity” means providing students with educational tools and support specific to their needs. In contrast, educational “equality” assumes a one-size-fits-all approach, that students’ educational needs are more universal than particular. This, of course, is not the case: A student educated at a private boarding school has vastly different needs than a first-generation college student who speaks English as a second language.
Cultivating equitable and inclusive academic environments requires purposeful intention, honoring differences, and curtailing barriers that impede full engagement. Inclusion, the intentional incorporation of strategies and practices that promote meaningful interactions among diverse communities, is associated with increased student engagement, motivation, and sense of belonging, all of which are associated with measures of student success, including development of critical thinking skills, ability to engage across differences, retention, and satisfaction. A sense of belonging develops when students feel accepted, valued, and understood. Feeling that they “fit in” aids in academic motivation and learning as well as student engagement and retention.
The lack of educational equity especially harms students who are English language learners (ELLs), whose home language is not English. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 5.1 million students were categorized as ELL students in 2019 in US public schools. These students require individualized resources to support their academic and linguistic competency. What’s more, demographic diversity in higher education is on the rise, suggesting the need for ELL support will increase in tandem.
Equity challenges extend beyond language. Students with disabilities obviously require resources, tailored to their specific challenges. LGBTQ+ students report having changed their dress, appearance, or mannerisms to avoid discrimination at college compared to non-LGBTQ+ peers, with resources for trans students in scarce supply. These difficulties contribute to a less-robust sense of belonging, and more frequent mental health struggles. LGBTQ+ students are diagnosed with serious clinical maladies – bipolar depression, eating disorders, depression, anxiety – at twice the rate of their non-LGBTQ+ peers. Students from non-dominant racial-ethnic groups (i.e., Black, Hispanic, and Native students) and first-generation college students report lower feelings of belonging as well as greater uncertainty about their belonging.
While many first-year students feel comfortable, valued, and included in the community at their institution, some of the most vulnerable students do not. For example, international students; students identifying as American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; who have a diagnosed disability or impairment; and LGBTQ+ students feel less valued and vital to their college communities.
As a former first-generation college student, these challenges are all too familiar to me. Even as the recent Supreme Court cases related to affirmative action shine a fresh light on educational equality as it relates to race-conscious admissions policies, academic institutions and potential applicants must advocate for and demand equity over equality. Academic institutions that aim for true equity must reject “good intentions” and commit to sustainable, equitable action to advance academic diversity.
Incorporating holistic admission reviews into the college application process considers applicants’ attributes, experiences, and academic metrics and values their contribution to both the academic environment and professional practice. Promoting an environment that honors and celebrates difference beyond race invites a rich variety of perspectives, beliefs, and experience, using an asset-based approach to engage students and ensure their success. An academic environment with diversity in thought, culture, and traits strengthens learning and invigorates a professional environment that serves people from different walks of life. We can create a microcosm of the world we seek to share, if we commit fully to practices that advance true equity.