Using an Equity Education Lens

The final plenary session of the College Board Forum this year brought two of the most prominent education scholars in the country together to discuss how colleges and universities can make a stronger commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Stella Flores, Associate Professor of Higher Education at New York University, and Anthony Jack, Assistant Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, joined Steve Bumbaugh, Senior Vice President of College & Career Access at the College Board, for a lively, informative, and thoughtful Q&A focused on confronting systemic inequalities in K-12 and higher education.

Auditi Chakravarty, Senior Vice President of Learning, Evaluation & Research at the College Board, pointed out in her introduction to the session that the pandemic has made us more keenly aware than ever of the importance of not just education but of schools. “Schools connect us,” she said, “[and] the very fabric of our country feels like it’s unraveling without the ability of some children to enter a school building.” She noted that while “schools can neutralize some inequalities,” they can also create them.

This power of school to lift and to suppress was an important theme for both Jack and Flores. Jack reminded the audience that “Covid-19 didn’t create inequality; it exacerbated it.” Much of his academic work has focused on creating a more nuanced picture of what college access means for students of color. Half of the low-income Black students and a third of the low-income Latinx students who attend highly selective schools, he said, are alumni of elite independent and boarding schools–a very small group he calls the privileged poor. It’s much more difficult to attend elite colleges and universities if you are one of the many more low-income Black or Latinx students who go to a local public school. It is not just higher education but the entire education system that is failing those students.

Flores made a similar point. Her research has shown that “what happens before college plays a massive role” in college completion, but too much of the research and policy decisions around retention and graduation begins when students arrive on campus. She found that in Texas 60% of the college completion gap between races could be explained by pre-college factors, such as school segregation, poverty, and academic preparation. Flores added that integrating schools in incredibly important but also very difficult because segregation is the product of hundreds of years of history going back to slavery and continuing up to this day in housing policy, employment practices, and other fundamental aspects of our lives.

An important component of integration will be acknowledging that income is not a proxy for race, Flores argued, and that racial segregation can only be solved by dealing with race as well as class. Jack echoed this sentiment, saying, “Income does not capture the true level of inequality in this country.” Covid-19 has put “some very uneven weights . . . on certain communities,” he added, and he pushed colleges to increase students’ access to mental health services and make sure those service staff are diverse and sensitive to the “concentration of trauma in Black, Latinx, and Native communities.” Flores, too, said that campus diversity must include students, faculty, and staff.

Jack also called for a more expansive approach to closing the digital divide. Internet access should be treated as a utility like heat or electricity, he said, because people need it to be secure today. But it’s not just a question of technology, especially for students, he went on to say. People need “space and time” to work remotely, and that may be an even more difficult issue to fix.

Bumbaugh closed the session by asking Flores and Jack what it would take to solve these problems that can seem intractable. Flores’s answer was “time. We’re dealing with the original sin of slavery” and hundreds of years of racism and inequity, so it will take time. That is not to say that people should be patient or resigned, however, she noted. As the nation grows more and more diverse and will soon become majority minority, it will be essential for the leadership of all institutions–higher ed and not–to reflect that diversity.