The Frontier Set was a select group of high-performing, high-potential colleges, universities, state systems, and supporting organizations committed to eliminating race, ethnicity, and income as predictors of student success by transforming how institutions operate. They came together to understand transformation, collaborate, and share insights with the foundation and one another. The key insight: Equity-focused transformation is possible.
As you review the insights about the individual components of transformation, the key drivers that make it possible and help sustain it, keep in mind that while each is discussed separately, in practice they are very much interconnected.
A Focus on Equity
From its launch, the Frontier Set network was committed to eliminating race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status as predictors of student success. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and demands for racial justice brought an even stronger sense of urgency across the Frontier Set network to take bold action to address the role systemic racism plays in the experiences of students in higher education across the country.
The Frontier Set’s goal of eliminating race, ethnicity, and income as predictors of student success intentionally centered equity in its design. Centering equity for Black, Latino, and Indigenous students and students from low-income backgrounds is not something that happens by default; rather, it requires an ongoing commitment to action that recognizes and seeks to rectify historical injustice toward underserved student populations. How Frontier Set institutions chose to define, measure, and embed equity in their transformation efforts varied based on their context, history, and the students they served.
Clarifying definitions and measures of equity cultivated buy-in across institutional stakeholders and helped align transformation strategies. This process happened through messaging from institutional leadership, designated working groups, facilitated conversations, and conscious review of disaggregated student data.
For some institutions, defining equity by giving examples of what it does or does not look like in terms of data and student experience was effective:
We found that defining equity in terms of “equitable outcomes” and “equitable access” as tangible goals, rather than “equity” as a general value, was key. While many at the college had, and still do have, difficulty untangling and embracing the known concept of equality (everyone gets the same) versus equity (everyone gets what they need to succeed), most of our stakeholders who engaged in the strategic planning process … were able to recognize and agree that according to the data, there are persistent, unequitable outcomes occurring for Black/African American students at our college. The next step is establishing why, and what we as a college can do about it.
Spokesperson from Wake Technical Community College as cited in Insights to Act On: Equity Innovations, Reflections & Resources
For the HBCUs, which were founded specifically to meet the needs of Black students, defining equity required identifying the specific needs of different student groups for the various initiatives at the institution:
Participants from Fayetteville State University pointed out that because the institution is an HBCU, equity is embedded in its tradition, mission, and work. Equity is included in FSU’s strategic priorities that specifically reference supporting students from “diverse backgrounds” including rural, military, and community colleges. During the Frontier Set the demographic makeup of FSU students shifted, and the university adjusted its student support services to better meet the needs of more transfer students and adult learners from military families. (2021 AIR Institutional Case Summary)
Equity catalysts are policies, processes, practices, and events that initiate or sustain transformational change that seeks to address student outcomes and opportunity gaps. For many institutions in the Frontier Set, events in 2020, including the COVID-19 pandemic and demands for racial justice – and the resulting local and national calls for an institutional response – were an inflection point. Other catalysts preceded or coincided with these events; the interplay helped to accelerate the elevation and prioritization of equity in transformation. Here are a few examples…
- Messaging from senior leadership with a clear and compelling vision for equity, including plain-language commitments to racial equity goals.
- Increasing the use of disaggregated data of student success outcomes to understand the student experience across all student demographics.
- Hiring dedicated personnel and developing new institutional divisions, departments, and committees to address challenges to equity on campus.
- Investing in targeted support efforts aimed at improving student success outcomes for underserved and minoritized populations.
Guilford Technical Community College furthered its ability to advance equity by introducing a DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiative that provided educational and professional training opportunities and resources to its community advancing understanding and application of diversity practices. (2020 AIR Institutional Case Summary)
For institutions and practitioners starting their transformation journey, race and socioeconomic equity must be an explicit operational priority. Members of the Frontier Set centered equity in their transformation efforts by:
- Defining, prioritizing, and reiterating their institution’s commitment to equity.
- Building a culture where data were regularly collected and used as evidence to inform decisions.
- Fostering trust and creating opportunities for authentic discussions.
- Prioritizing the inclusion of students’ voices.
Below are details on how these strategies were employed across the Frontier Set institutions.
Expressing Institutional Commitment
As discussed in The Role of Visionary Senior Leadership in Equity-Focused Transformation, equity should be embedded in an institution’s vision, mission, and strategic plan. It should reflect the voices of senior leadership, mid-level leaders, core staff, faculty, and students, and it should be widely — and consistently — communicated campus-wide.
An equitable future is one where every process, policy, and plan is analyzed for its impact on different groups of students, and decisions are made with the intent to mitigate any negative effects on any single student group. Achieving equitable outcomes in a system as complex as a university or college requires embracing the equity agenda across all departments and all roles, including administrators, faculty, and staff. While any single person can make a difference, the process is too complex to manage alone.
A spokesperson at Wake Tech Community College expressed the following on the institution’s commitment to equitable outcomes, “Alongside declaring Equitable Outcomes as a priority, the President demonstrates that Equitable Outcomes, Equitable Access, and ultimately our mission embracing Economic Mobility is important in all of his actions and communications. He does this through all of his engagement with the community, the Board of Trustees, with his leadership team, through letters to the campus at large, and by giving his time to our strategic planning efforts.”
2020 Annual Site Reflections
Building a Culture of Evidence
The importance of improved data infrastructure, capacity, and access is discussed in Models That Sustain Transformation. Beyond generating disaggregated data, Frontier Set institutions made strides in making data transparent and connecting it to institutional goals and priorities, and many implemented regular routines for reflecting on disaggregated data. Reviewing data paired with thoughtful analyses supported nuanced decision-making and generated buy-in from stakeholders across campus. It also helped individuals see their role in supporting an institution-wide commitment to pursuing equity.
Northern Arizona University’s emphasis on data governance and data-informed decision-making guided its robust use of data to support initiatives and improved common use of data across all levels of the institution. Bottom-up transformation from data-savvy staff and faculty led to the establishment of The Equitable and Inclusive Teaching Seminar. The Seminar equipped faculty with tools to explore their course outcomes with an equity-minded lens, by looking at disaggregated data to identify trends and develop solutions at the course level.
Fostering Trust Through Authenticity
Conversations around race and inequity can be difficult. When individual leaders showed up authentically and with vulnerability, it fostered trust and gave others permission to share more openly in group conversations. Some Frontier Set institutions took bold action to focus on racial equity and develop conversations and workshops rooted in anti-racism and racial justice. For example, Northwest Wisconsin Technical College developed a 10-part series for campus leaders centered around dismantling racism.
Elevating Student Voices
Student voices can provide important context and nuance to quantitative observations. Most Frontier Set institutions found ways to source student perspectives, such as using surveys and focus groups. The information gleaned from these tools illuminated barriers faced by students and allowed institutions to make deliberate decisions and take targeted action to improve the student experience. In some cases, this resulted in a curriculum change, flexible supports for students with out-of-school responsibilities, or new opportunities for students to connect on campus, growing their sense of belonging to the college community.
Just as the broader journey of transformation was, and is, unique to each participating Frontier Set institution, equity itself — how it’s defined, measured, and achieved — is highly dependent on the specific context within which an institution is operating. It’s important to start where you are — both personally and from an institutional perspective — because the transformation journey is an ongoing one.
Use these questions to reflect on your own, or discuss with colleagues to inform and accelerate your institution’s transformation progress. For additional insights and guiding questions, please download our collection of Insights to Act On.
- Does your institution have a clear definition of equity, including what equitable student outcomes are and a communication strategy that prioritizes equity in every campus office?
- Is equity an explicitly stated part of your institution’s mission, vision, and/or strategic plan?
- In what ways do your institution’s leaders champion equitable student outcomes?
A note on citations: Examples from the Frontier Set institutions are cited from reports and case studies which may not be publicly available. Each example referenced has been approved by the institution for inclusion on this site.