Equity—It Takes a College

Colorado has a problem, and we’re not alone. For many years, Colorado has had one of the highest post-secondary attainment rates in the nation. In fact, our well-educated workforce has helped Colorado claim the top spot in the U.S. News and World Report list of states with the greatest economic stability and potential. But, we also have a significant “equity gap,” meaning that race and ethnicity are a significant determinant of who holds those credentials. Given that our fastest growing demographic groups are aging White individuals and young people of color, our continued economic success is dependent on our ability to focus our resources and our policies on closing that gap.

The good news is that Colorado not only set a statewide attainment goal of 66% for working age adults, but that our state master plan specifically provides that closing educational equity gaps is an equally important state goal. Equity is not an add-on or an afterthought. It is front and center. That is most apparent in our state funding formula that includes factors for post-secondary success for low-income students and students of color. The result has been a change in the conversation at all public institutions, from community colleges to our most selective research institutions. Changing the conversation was not our goal, however. Changing outcomes was, and still is. 

Establishing equity as a state policy goal and backing it up in the way we allocate our limited state dollars are two necessary but not sufficient steps towards achieving that goal. I have been fortunate to serve in a variety of positions that have shaped my perspective on equity in higher education—why it matters and how we define, measure, create, reward, and sustain it. As president of both a community college and a university, head of the state department of higher education, Lt. Governor, and now chancellor of the state community college system, I have joined other policymakers in advocating for improving outcomes for students of color, but progress has been slow. That is, in part, because we have too often claimed equity as a priority but then turned it over to individuals or small groups that are passionate, but often lack resources, influence, and a clear mandate and support from leadership.   

“It takes a village” may strike some as an overused phrase, but we know it to be true, especially when we refer to children and communities lacking in resources. The idea is that we all play critical roles in determining positive outcomes. At our colleges, however, the subtext is often “It takes a subcommittee” or perhaps “It takes a Chief Diversity Officer”.  Rarely do we look beyond student life or CDOs to examine what we do in the classroom around pedagogy, instructional design, or curriculum development, despite the fact that our institutions’ primary mission is instruction. The results are no surprise—modest gains at all institutions, but a failure to meet the state goal.

With the support of a Talent, Innovation, and Equity grant from the Lumina Foundation, the state adopted strategies including faculty training to create inclusive learning environments, supporting the development of campus equity plans, and recruiting a statewide group of community and business based “equity champions” to help our colleges better connect with communities of color. Some of our colleges also worked with the Center for Urban Education to advance the message that we must view everything we do through an equity lens and everyone at our campuses, including our instructors, must play a part. It may be uncomfortable to examine what happens in a classroom, including identifying which instructors successfully engage minority students, but that is the only way we can identify what, and who, is helping to close equity gaps. 

We cannot stop with instructors or with student life, either. Those in enrollment services, advising, financial aid, food service, and even facilities all interact with students and all have the ability to engage them and make them feel welcome and supported. It is an unfortunate fact of life at most institutions of higher education that the staff in those areas are more likely to reflect the demographics of our students than do our faculty. Why not engage them and let them know that they can play a role in connecting with our students and helping them achieve their goals while we achieve ours? 

Equity can’t be an “additional duty as assigned” to one individual or a hastily formed committee. To truly achieve equity, “It takes a college.”