APU Careers & Learning Online Learning Original

Driving Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Higher Education

By Dr. Cynthia Silvia
Faculty Member, Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business

As higher education institutions work hard to create true diversity and equity in new student enrollment, it is first necessary to recognize the factors that lead to racial, socioeconomic, and gender gaps in student outcomes. Demographic disparities still exist, despite past efforts by educational institutions to increase diversity and inclusion while recruiting new students to higher education.

During the past 50 years, for instance, ethnic and racial inequalities have grown for Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians seeking to attain a bachelor’s degree. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the bachelor’s degree attainment gap has doubled for Hispanic and Black students from 9% to 20% for Hispanics and from 6% to 13% for Blacks.

Which Student Groups Are Most Affected by a Lack of Diversity and Equity?

Years of focusing on inequalities and completion rates have resulted in disproportionate practices that impact various student groups, such as:

  • Students of color
  • Students with emotional, behavioral and cognitive disabilities
  • Students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ)

Often, these students are removed from school. As a result, they lose learning opportunities due to being suspended or expelled due to exclusionary discipline practices.

In addition, removal from school not only affects those students, but also their families, schools and local communities. These students become alienated from school and their teachers.

Such students are also at risk of committing crimes and entering the criminal justice system, which also results in a cost to the community. These students are not likely to return to school, graduate and become productive members of society.

For students, these situations often result in racial, socioeconomic and gender gaps in student outcomes, according to Safe Supportive Learning. To create equal learning opportunities for all students, institutional leaders must carefully examine their policies and practices to make sweeping, targeted reforms.

Improving Diversity in the Higher Education Student Population

As educators, we must support promoting diversity in colleges and universities nationwide. According to the Department of Education, the Obama Administration noted that increasing diversity in higher education is instrumental in:

  • Improving educational opportunities for students of color
  • Helping students to improve their critical thinking and analytical skills
  • Preparing students for a world that is diverse and interconnected

Gaps in Education Are a Key Factor in Diminishing Social Mobility

High school students who experience educational disparities before they complete their high school diploma often experience similar gaps when they choose to pursue a college degree. Their social mobility is diminished, especially for people of color who share the same life experience as people with low incomes and first-generation college students.

One of the factors that contribute to this gap is school segregation. The U.S. Department of Education notes that students of color often experience inequities regarding advanced coursework in high school and access to counselors who help prepare students for enrolling in colleges and universities. These gaps result in stress for students, which impacts their academic success.

Factors That Influence Educational Outcomes

Disparities in outcomes for high school students of color often create disparities in educational opportunities at the college level. According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 80% of students of color are affected by racial and ethnic disparities, family income, and level of parental education.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine note that there are other factors that negatively influence learning. These factors include:

  • Food and housing insecurity
  • Exposure to violence
  • Unsafe neighborhoods
  • Adverse childhood experiences

Increasing Student Enrollment Through Engagement

Diversity and inclusion are essential factors in increasing access to learning opportunities for students of color and increasing overall student enrollment. Many challenges remain and demand the attention of policymakers and higher learning institutions.

Increased student enrollment requires higher education institutions to use new strategies, such as:

  • Using social media to create blogs where students can tell their stories
  • Using storytelling as a tool to create brand awareness
  • Using search engine optimization (SEO) to increase a school’s visibility
  • Increasing attention to student enrollments to ensure equitable access
  • Making campuses feel inclusive and safe by promoting the exchange of perspectives and values from students of different ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds
  • Expanding learning environments through the use of apps, mobile devices and new technologies
  • Providing mentorship programs
  • Encouraging the formation of student organizations
  • Hosting free online seminars that promote academic opportunities for students
  • Forming community partnerships with local high schools and community colleges offering pre-college courses and opportunities to pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree
  • Establishing community partnerships
  • Establishing partnerships with other institutions of higher learning
  • Arranging conferences for higher learning educators to promote new strategies

Education Is Vital to Compete in the Global Economy

President Obama stated in his 2008 acceptance speech, “Now is the time to finally meet our moral obligation to provide every child a world-class education because it takes nothing less to compete in the global economy.” A key strategy for academic success lies in high schools forming partnerships with institutions of higher learning, especially those in the same community as students. In addition, a conference for higher learning educators could generate ideas to improve student enrollment strategies.

Dr. Cynthia Silvia is a full-time faculty member for the Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business. Dr. Silvia received a Master of Healthcare Administration and a Doctorate in Healthcare Administration from the University of Phoenix and a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in Elementary Education from the University of Rhode Island. She has been teaching at the university level both online and on-campus for the past seven years. Additionally, Dr. Silvia has held various retail management positions over the past 38 years for F.W. Woolworth/Woolco, Bradlees, Ames, Sears, Toys "R" Us, Babies "R" Us and CVS Pharmacy.

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