Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Excellence in Undergraduate Education Must Include Equity, Says Influential Group

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 In doing so the authors disavow long-held, if increasingly outdated, notions that a rigorous education requires the weeding out of less talented or poorly equipped students.

Rather, they argue, a key duty of the university should be to ensure that students who arrive at college with fewer educational, social, or financial resources are equipped to succeed at the same rate as their peers.

“Defining excellence in terms of equity rather than, for example, selectivity and sorting, unsettles at least 70-odd years of practice,” the authors state in “The Equity-Excellence Imperative: A 2030 Blueprint for Undergraduate Education at U.S. Research Universities.” “Excellence founded in equity requires us to think differently about why we do what we do, not only what we do and how we do it.”

The report was produced by the Boyer 2030 Commission of the Association for Undergraduate Education at Research Universities, which consists of current and former university leaders, scholars, and heads of higher-education organizations. It is an update of sorts to the original Boyer Commission, convened in the 1990s by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. That group’s recommendations, cutting edge when released, are now considered required elements of a modern undergraduate education. They include an emphasis on interdisciplinary work, developing students’ ability to communicate, and using information technology creatively.

The 2030 report is wide-ranging, covering not only the kinds of education students should receive, but approaches to effective teaching, advising, faculty-reward systems, curricular structure, credit transfer, technology, and mental health. Throughout the narrative, the authors point out ways in which traditional approaches to those dimensions of college favor students who come from better-resourced backgrounds, and why that must change.

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

“In today’s world, you cannot be an excellent institution if you are not also an equitable, inclusive institution,” said the commission’s co-chair, Barbara Snyder, president of the Association of American Universities. “Data tells us that we’re not doing as well as we could, or as well as we need to and as we want to. And so we’re trying to be specific about exactly what kinds of things can make a difference.”

The commission chose the word “blueprint” for a reason: to offer peers concrete ideas for improving outcomes through specific types of interventions and reforms. “It’s not just theoretical,” said Snyder. “We’re trying to show real examples of how this can be done at different research universities across the country.”

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

In today’s world, you cannot be an excellent institution if you are not also an equitable, inclusive institution.

In the area of access and affordability, getting full-time students through in four years — without excess course loads or summer work, which are challenging for low- and middle-income students — is a critical part of the equation, the report says. But that requires a review of many aspects of the curriculum, and starts with analyzing data on how students move through each degree program, to see where equity gaps exist.

Courses known for weeding out students, those with high rates of Ds, Fs, and withdrawals, complex sequences of prerequisites, and majors with so many requirements that students must carry heavy courseloads or spend more time enrolled “all promote ‘self-selection’ that masks deeper forms of discrimination, among other barriers to excellent education,” the report says. It highlights the work of several colleges and programs that aim to make such pathways clearer.

Making Teaching Reforms the Norm

In the area of teaching reform, the report describes a number of strategies backed by evidence showing that they lead to better outcomes. That includes the use of low-stakes assignments and “flipping” classrooms so that meeting time is spent focused on group discussion and problem solving.

Although many faculty members have used such techniques for years with notable success, the report says, these approaches are not yet professional standards. “One can still walk into a classroom in which no thought has been given to inclusive pedagogy,” it notes. “Faculty do not routinely review one another’s knowledge of germane research in pedagogy, course design, and inclusive practices. Systemic adoption of such practices remains elusive, leaving unrealized their full benefits for equity and excellence.”

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

“We make the point that there is a huge amount of evidence” to back up 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’re an evidence-based set of institutions. We produce this research and literature. Now we need to broadly apply it.”

Another area of concern is the disparate use of high-impact practices. These are a collection of activities — including undergraduate research, internships, and study-abroad programs — that reformers have long argued increase student engagement and persistence. According to the report, research shows that Black and Hispanic students who participate in high-impact practices in their first year of college show greater gains in retention and grades than do white students.

Yet “significant roadblocks to equitable access” exist, the report notes. For example, 51 percent of white students in the 2019 National Survey of Student Engagement said they participated in an internship, compared with 40 percent of Black students. Lack of time, money, and awareness are some reasons students cited for not participating in high-impact practices.

Lowering or eliminating barriers — such as by embedding experiential learning into coursework — is critical for closing these gaps. When he was president of Michigan State University, McPherson noted, the institution was able to substantially 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, said Snyder, universities can work with corporations to ensure that the internships they offer are paid.

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

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