Equity-centered Strategies to Support Students of Color

This year’s challenges brought opportunities to quickly learn about, develop, and implement more equity-centered strategies

Equity Centered Strategies

Since its inception in 2016, the Frontier Set institutions, systems, and partners have been committed to reforming their policies and practices so that race and income are no longer predictors of student success. The COVID-19 pandemic and the reckoning with racial injustice in our country, both of which have had an outsized impact on communities of color, brought a stronger sense of urgency for higher education institutions to focus on equity-centered strategies to address the role systemic racism plays in the success (and failure) of students around the country. While there are many barriers to developing and implementing equity-centered plans, Frontier Set members acted quickly to move equity from rhetoric to action, identifying biases and interrogating institutional structures, culture, and practices to address their impact on students.  

The events of 2020 brought systemic racism and entrenched injustices to the forefront of the national conversation. As these deep barriers to equity got the attention they deserve, Frontier Set institutions looked inward at their own barriers to developing shared, actionable equity-centered strategies.

One oft-cited barrier to developing these strategies is a lack of time and resources available to faculty, staff, and students across campuses. For example, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) noted that “competing priorities for resources and urgency within the college landscape” continue to be a barrier to developing equity-centered strategies. Despite these challenges, NWTC and many other Frontier Set institutions observed and began developing a shared sense of commitment to prioritizing racial equity. San Jacinto College, for example, wrote that while time and resources are typical barriers, because the institution had committed to equity prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd in May, “the two global events actually made the work more pressing and personal to all members of our college community.” And with a focus on equitable outcomes, institutional leadership can also help address the persistent resource barrier: leaders at Florida International University are “determined to identify existing resources that can be leveraged or reallocated to ensure we are fully supporting these efforts.”

While the institution as a whole might be committed to equitable outcomes, another key barrier to equity-centered strategies is alignment and commitment from all campus employees, across all levels. Wake Technical Community College, for example, noted that a potential barrier is “the lack of a shared, widespread understanding of and value for equity,” and Indian River State College wrote that some across the college may not understand systemic racism as an issue, may not see a need to act, or may not know what to do to confront it.      

Again, leadership plays a key role in setting and supporting an expectation for individual and collective commitment to driving toward equitable outcomes for students of color. As Portland State University (PSU) noted, without executive-level sponsorship and follow-through on action, institutions will struggle to systemically prioritize equitable outcomes on their campus. And while the commitment to equity needs to be addressed at an institutional level, individual commitment is also incredibly important. Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte reflected: “While the beauty of our institution is our differences, we must be willing to share and be challenged by our differences in order to assist the institution with meeting the ever-changing needs of our students.”

Finally, institutions must hire racially diverse administrators, faculty, and staff to support students of color. As Northern Arizona University shared, “We should not be satisfied by checking the boxes that we attempted to recruit a diverse pool of applicants. We need to recruit, hire, retain, and fairly evaluate diverse faculty and staff, and to build a culture and institution where diverse administrators, faculty, staff, and students want to be.”

Although there are barriers to implementing equity-centered strategies on campuses, Frontier Set institutions understand the urgency of moving from rhetoric to action—work that starts with recognizing bias and understanding students’ experiences.

Often institutions start the journey of recognizing and addressing bias on their campus by looking at data that highlights equity gaps, which then sparks conversation around addressing those gaps. But then, to further recognize the lived experiences of Black, Latino, and Indigenous students, it’s important to go to students and hear directly how bias shows up in their experiences. Harper College, in Illinois, starts with leadership participation to “help lead from the top,” which creates the conditions for staff and faculty to feel empowered to discuss the impact of bias directly with students. Miami Dade College noted that in order to create a welcoming community, they “need to ensure that every individual in our college family clearly understands the historical underpinnings of social injustice and what (s)he can do to make a difference moving forward.”

Being proactive is important to creating equitable outcomes for students. In addition to hearing and listening to students’ experiences of bias, campuses across Frontier Set are creating formal and informal spaces for students and faculty to share their experiences. For example, NWTC offers “A Place at the Table,” a series for students and staff to talk about current events, and at Jackson State University, a historically Black university, faculty and staff are prompted to have the “HBCU Talk” with students to discuss the biases and shared experiences Black people face that still exist in our country today.

It’s one thing to recognize bias on campus, but Frontier Set members are going further by expressing commitments to racial equity and aligning their language accordingly.

Staff play an important role in sharing feedback with leadership on how to turn strategies into realities on campus. After the murder of George Floyd, San Jacinto College’s chancellor addressed the issue of racism directly, and went further by asking for employees’ feedback on what the college could do to make its anti-racist stance clearer and more actionable.

In addition to offering space to address bias, campus employees—from practitioners to leaders—must share equity as a priority, and should be trained to use explicit, equity-minded language to lead with empathy. The University of North Carolina Greensboro summarized it this way: “Having executive leadership identify equity and inclusion as top values of the institution signals to the community that conversations about bias and racism, and solutions to systems and structures that promote it, should be top-of-mind.” Across the Frontier Set, campuses are adopting this very practice. Portland State, for example, has “made a significant shift in utilization and language around our commitment to anti-racism, decolonization of curriculum, and dismantling white supremacy across levels of the organization, from executive leadership to faculty, staff, and students.” The Advising & Career Services division at PSU created the Anti-Racism Taskforce and outlined where they are versus where they hope to be in regard to dismantling institutional racism. Their commitment reads, “Historically, PSU has created a facade of commitment to Black students, staff, and faculty under the guise of 'diversity and equity.’ The reality is that Black students, faculty, and staff are not supported and are hurting.”

As the global pandemic and racial reckoning have created upheaval across the United States, many Frontier Set institutions quickly realized that now is the time to think differently, change the conversation, and challenge the historical structure, norms, practices, and cultures that have failed to equitably support students of color.

COVID-19 forced campuses to pivot quickly, to offer distance learning for students while still keeping equity a priority. Some campuses addressed this by implementing training to foster a deeper understanding of the lived experiences of students of color, others by ensuring inclusive hiring practices on campus. Notably, Sinclair Community College “paused instruction for 10 days in mid-March and added resources, training, and personnel to support our rapid transition of 2,000 courses to online and remote learning, and adapted policies and procedures to better and more empathetically support our students.” Indian River State College implemented, and continues to offer, training for awareness on bias and racism on campus, in order to provide tools for faculty and staff to advocate for change. Miami Dade College emphasized the importance of delivering workshops and seminars to help employees and faculty build awareness about racial inequities and gain deeper understandings of Black students’ lived experience.

The pandemic also brought forward the realities of digital inequities and access to technology. As conveyed by University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, the pandemic brought a focus to faculty on “how our students’ lack of technology and Wi-Fi access, as well as commitments to family and work, impact what students are able to do in their classes.” To ensure all students were successful during this transition, CUNY College of Staten Island and many other institutions purchased and distributed hardware for students without devices, so they could participate in remote learning.

While several institutions had student and staff affinity groups in place before 2020, several campuses developed new groups to address equity and provide safe spaces for minoritized communities to connect, gather, and learn. Florida International University implemented town halls for the university to come together and discuss racial justice and social equity, and Lorain County Community College is in the process of expanding its equity team to address strategic equity planning for the road ahead. But these campus groups aren’t just addressing race. Johnson C. Smith University shared that they revamped their Safe Space programming, “which addresses and educates on LGBTQ issues. We now have a Brave Space program that does the same work and calls for individuals to be brave in their spaces to assist with making everyone feel [included] on campus.”

Frontier Set members have always been committed to eliminating race and income as predictors for success for students of color, but 2020 brought an even stronger spotlight to racial injustice on campuses. From quickly pivoting to more digital learning with equitable access to technology at the forefront, to developing new student groups with a focus on racial and social justice, to conducting diversity, equity, and inclusion training for staff and leaders, the Frontier Set as a whole continues to innovate to serve students. The anti-racist work doesn’t stop here—institutions and systems must keep innovating and pressing the issue to make change.