Hundreds of studies show that low-income, first-generation, and minority students finish school at lower rate than students who are in the majority. It has nothing to do with intellect and everything to do with opportunity.
Historically, students who have previous college exposure or parents to lean on for advice have an advantage from the moment they start applying to schools. They know the college jargon and their parents are able to help them navigate through school, from application to graduation. Institutional structures and hierarchies favor them.
Meanwhile, disadvantaged, low-income, or first-generation students who don’t have parental experience to fall back on are likely to face more difficulty throughout their college journey. Traditional university jargon, systems, and processes just aren’t geared toward helping them succeed.
How can universities improve equity and foster a better learning environment for everyone? Here are five places to start:
1. Simplify jargon. Students are bombarded with confusing terminology and acronyms the minute they start the application process. FAFSA, add/drop, block scheduling, degree audit, RA, TA, practicum, course catalog, registration—what does all this mean? Jargon and confusing phrases are rampant in marketing material and on university websites. Content is wordy and long and reads more like an academic thesis than simple instructions on how to register for a class. Students are expected to know it all, but the only ones who do have previous college exposure. First-generation students are left to figure it out on their own. Read this article for specific ways to improve clarity and simplify university jargon.
2. Tear down silos. Institutions have long-established structures and processes that benefit a select group of students, but hinder first-generation, low-income, and minority students from gaining access to the same resources. These silos are at the root of the equity problem. College acceptance hinges on submitting the right documents at the right time, knowing what paperwork is necessary, knowing how to stand out among a sea of applicants in a highly competitive environment… and only if you’ve been exposed to college before do you have an advantage. First-generation students are figuring it all out for the first time. Disadvantaged students stay at a disadvantage. The whole college experience is designed for someone who know what they’re doing. Those who don’t struggle to keep up through no fault of their own. Perhaps improving equity doesn’t mean adding more programs and initiatives, but rather improving processes that already exist.
3. Provide classes, seminars, or curriculum focused on life skills. Not everyone comes into college with an understanding of important life skills, and not everyone leaves with one. Things like banking, investing, taxes, insurance, loans, and housing markets can be confusing to students living on their own for the first time or graduating and starting a career. By offering learning opportunities, especially for financial matters, students become more prepared for and confident about the future.
4. Ask students for feedback. The best way to know if students are struggling, feeling lost, or having trouble navigating the college system is to ask them. How prepared do they feel for next semester? Are they struggling to stay in school for financial or academic reasons? How helpful are the software platforms they currently use? Do they know where to go if they have questions or need advice? It’s important to get students’ perspectives on a regular basis, not just from a once-yearly survey. Get feedback, notice trends, and make changes quickly so the students who made suggestions are still in school to benefit from the outcomes.
5. Provide help for all. Do students know where to go when they have questions or need help? Do they have to jump through hoops to get there? You can boost equity by simplifying the search for support with EVAN360. Instead of making appointments, searching for an office building, or digging around for an email address, students need a one-stop-shop for all questions and requests. Every student can be connected with an advisor, counselor, mentor, or peer coach in minutes with the EVAN360 app so they never have to wonder where to go for help.
What does equity look like at your institution? What steps are you taking to improve equity, and what is holding you back? If you can answer those questions, you’re off to a great start. If we continue to pursue closing the equity gap in higher education, more students will have access to resources and opportunities previously reserved for a select few.