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Colleges Are Learning How To Make DEI Programs Effective

The commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives by many colleges and universities is a source of hope that higher education will address and make progress to bridge stubborn achievement gaps – including here in California. And while this focus is a step forward, it’s also a great source of frustration as many students still find themselves struggling to access the benefits of higher education.  Whether it’s an issue of ethnicity, location, income, or all three, something must be done to level the playing field and give every person access to higher education and a chance to succeed.

The good news is that the more higher education focuses on DEI, the better we get at it. Two new studies, examined by The Chronicle of Higher Education, suggest that there is a path forward to establish successful and lasting DEI programs – and that it’s actually relatively straightforward.

Broadly speaking, the new studies suggest there are two approaches institutions should pursue.

Institutions Can Support Equity Right Now

The first step is to identify areas where change be simple, not requiring a lot of resources but providing a potentially significant benefit. 

For example:

  • Crafting a DEI-focused mission for the program
  • Evaluating student applicantions holistically against that mission, rather than focusing on test scores
  • Retaining diverse faculty members
  • Partnering with local community colleges
  • Training admissions interviewers on implicit bias
  • Forming a representative DEI committee for the program. 

These are all attainable without the need for significant new resources. If they’re done with intention and follow through, they can make a significant difference over time.

The reports suggest keeping those approaches on separate tracks and timetables than efforts to promote DEI that require significant resources – what one of the papers called “aspirational strategies.”  

Measure What You’re Doing – But People Are More Than Numbers

The two papers looked at by the Chronicle present a kind of paradox of DEI work: truly exceptional programs keep track of what they’re doing and their schools’ diversity metrics. At the same time, numbers don’t tell the whole story: schools have to support the people they’ve brought in.

The Chronicle quotes one school administrator as critiquing approaches that only measure the number of diverse students enrolled and diverse staff hired: “We’re focusing on diversity, but then the inclusion piece is not there. A lot of times the equity piece is not there.”

So it’s vital to be both quantitative and qualitative: to get a schools’ “numbers up” for diverse students and faculty, but also to offer support and create strong connections. Studies show that diverse students who feel a sense of belonging at their college are much more likely to persist through their studies and meet their goals.

Calbright has a far greater population of non-traditional students than most colleges, with over 70% identifying as BIPOC, over 90% above the age of 25, and a third having children. Yet our student satisfaction rates are high:

  • 79% of students surveyed reported that they were satisfied with what they had learned in their programs, 
  • 76% were satisfied with their overall experience at Calbright, and 
  • 90.4% of students would recommend Calbright to someone else

What this tells us, when combined with the new research, is that it is possible to create DEI best practices that work for institutions as varied as community colleges and medical schools. That makes studies about what works crucial. We have to celebrate, and learn from, successes.  

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