The Equity Imperative in Higher Education Policy and Practice

As a first-generation college graduate employed by an organization that promotes equity in higher education policies and practices, I am encouraged by ongoing conversations and actions among higher education policymakers and others that aim to improve access and outcomes for all students, regardless of their starting point in life and particularly among underrepresented (also referred to as “underestimated”) citizens of America. I am simultaneously discouraged, however, by undisputed postsecondary attainment data that project certain groups of students will not achieve 60% college attainment by 2060 (Nettles, 2017). These same groups represent some of the fastest growing segments of our population: African American males, African American females, Hispanic males, Hispanic females, American Indian/Alaskan males, and American Indian/Alaskan females. Members of Asian and White populations are projected to reach this goal by or before 2060.[i] Reality check.

The starkness of these and other data highlighting student performance gaps disaggregated by race and ethnicity are problematic. Furthermore, the need to increase postsecondary degree attainment is inextricably linked to workforce development, civic engagement, and global competitiveness. John F. Kennedy’s (1957) quote that, “the rising tide lifts all boats” is as true today as it was more than six decades ago.[ii] Fortunately, today’s policymakers today have the benefit of a deep and comprehensive body of research that examines equity in higher education and its implications for the country, states, individuals, and society writ large. There is evidence of rising consensus that the causes of inequity in higher education are systemic and dismantling these systems will require new mental habits. The Center for Urban Education defines this shift to equity mindedness as the “…the mode of thinking …exhibited by practitioners who call attention to patterns of inequity in student outcomes.”[iii] Bensimon (2018, p.97) asserts that “the authentic exercise of equity and equity-mindedness requires explicit attention to structural inequality and institutional racism” (Bensimon, 2018, p.97).[iv] System check.

Strategic imperatives for increasing degree attainment have been clearly articulated, the distinction between notions of equality and equity have been widely adopted, and the implications (including opportunities) for higher education are not subtle. Some of the associated policy and practice domains have implications for K-12 education. Related and in addition to matters of access and affordability, specific policies and practices warranting deliberate examination through an equity lens include educator preparation and teacher diversity, dual credit programs, postsecondary attainment for adult learners including credit for prior learning, and postsecondary education for individuals involved in the criminal justice system. These examples do not represent an exhaustive list of overlapping P-16 areas of policies and practices that have equity implications, but they are worthy of highlighting. Addressing these matters from a systems, equity-minded approach can help higher education policy and institutional leaders in their efforts to develop diverse talent pools to meet the needs of the 21st century and beyond. State agencies and systems of higher education across the country are actively engaged in innovative and equity-minded initiatives to move the equity needle in measurable ways.  SHEEO continues to highlight and support these efforts and advancements. Progress check.


[i] Nettles, M. Education Testing Service. (2017). Challenges and Opportunities in Achieving the National Postsecondary Degree Attainment goals.  Princeton, NJ: Education Testing Service. 

[ii] Kennedy, J.F. (1957). The Rising Tide Lifts All Boats.  Wall Street Journal, October 29, 1957.

[iii] Center for Urban Education. (n.d.).  Equity Mindedness. What is Equity-Mindedness? University of Southern California. Retrieved from

[iv] Bensimon, E.M. (2018). Reclaiming racial justice in equity.  Change: The Magazine of Higher Education. Vol. 50 (3-4): 95-98.