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Why the Future of Higher Education Depends on Understanding Equity

The future of higher education depends on a systemic and equity focused understanding of enrollment in higher education.

Written by: Thea Louise Thomaseth Bugge

The future of higher education depends on equity. Stakeholders should approach equity in higher education through a systemic approach to their strategic plans for the future. This includes factoring in equity of educational access, completion, as well as collecting annual enrollment data for more diverse demographic groups. Improving equity on such a systemic level has the potential to improve enrollment rates and improve pathways to educational success. This could lead to improved career outcomes for historically underserved populations and help higher education fulfil its potential to empower individuals and promote economic mobility.

Popular media makes it seem like there is not enough demand for higher education to sustain enrollment. Articles by the New York Times and Inside Higher Ed

create a grim narrative about the future of enrollment. Data backs this up; enrollment has fallen by over five million people since 2011, and McKinsey & Co found that declining birth rates will lower the student enrollment pool starting in 2025. This blogpost does not contest this data. But it argues that current media portrayal of the state of higher education portrays a somewhat misleading insight into the possible future enrollment landscape of higher education. There are many reasons for this, such as:

  • Low data collection about demographic groups with low enrollment numbers, such as justice impacted populations and people frok low income backgrounds. Organizations that cover annual enrollment trends do not include demographic groups like these.

  • Annual or biannual enrollment data about other important demographic groups are not collected annually by the Education Department or other major education data agencies either. First generation students and students with disabilities are two examples of groups who may be misrepresented this way.

  • Data reports about the future of higher education do not extensively cover the equity challenges that contribute to the enrollment patterns.

    • Instead, reports most often focus on the general population (such as high schooler's perceptions of higher education), or the equity challenges for only a small percentage of demographic groups. For example, this report by the Digest of Higher Education and this report by the McKinsey & Co both report about the state of enrollment by demographic groups. But neither have any discussion about equity or enrollment challenges by group.

  • Data reports about the state of enrollment in higher education rarely factor in graduation and persistence rates, which is critical for understanding outcomes for students. For example, the widely used National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) does not include information about graduation or retention rates in its annual report about the state of higher education. The NSCRC does publish studies about graduation and retention rates, but they are provided separately and not included in the discussion about the overall state of higher education.

  • Data reports about the state of higher education rarely include studies on strategies that have been proven to work to increase enrollment. Many agencies and organizations report this, but their information is not included in the popular annual reports about the state of higher education.

The points presented above demonstrate the limitations of mainstream discourse and understanding about enrollment in higher education. Having so many factors left out limits stakeholders' ability to see the whole system and how factors interact and interconnect to influence total enrollment. This is a significant issue for many reasons, including;

  • It leaves out the importance of graduation rates in relation to future enrollment patterns.

    • People with parents that graduated from college are much more likely to enroll in higher education than those who are the first in their families to obtain a postsecondary degree. Increasing graduation rates would therefore likely increase enrollment in the future.

      • This is significantly important since the average graduation rates are between 30 and 50% depending on institution, with lower graduation rates for demographic groups who experience more equity challenges.

  • It limits the visibility of many demographic groups in higher education.

    • Being left out of the discourse not only adds to enrollment equity challenges. It also limits schools' ability to understand how to actively support and enroll more people from diverse demographic groups, and ensure they succeed.

    • It limits institutions and stakeholders' ability to know which demographic groups might be viable as future sources of enrollment.

  • It limits stakeholders' ability to holistically address enrollment challenges in higher education.

    • This could potentially cause missed opportunities for increasing future enrollment through other means than reducing tuition costs.


In Practice

Here is one example of how applying a systems thinking approach to enrollment and utilizing diverse data could help improve enrollment. The action: Increasing faculty diversity in higher education institutions.

The data: - Increasing faculty diversity has been proven to improve graduation rates for historically underserved populations.

-High school students with at least one parent who graduated college are more likely to enroll in higher education themselves. -People with postsecondary degrees have higher average annual income than those who don't across all demographic groups. -White people with bachelor's degrees earn on average more than people of color with bachelor degrees. In 2019 (most recent available data), they earned more than $7 per hour than Black people with a bachelor's degree. -One reason why many people choose not to enroll or can't finish their degree is due to the high cost of higher education. The why: Increasing faculty diversity in colleges and universities could improve graduation rates for people from historically underserved groups. This change could contribute to an increase in the number of students from that demographic group in future generations for two reasons:

First, members of these groups would be more likely to enroll in higher education due to influence from their parents and peers. Second, the accumulation of generational wealth would make affording their degree easier.

Not only would this improve long-term enrollment and financial revenue for institutions, but it could also improve equity in higher education.

Protecting the future of higher education will require incorporating 'data equity'. Enrollment data needs to include more demographic groups, include topics related to equity challenges, and solutions oriented. Local stakeholders will need to apply systems thinking with a top-down perspective in order to get a complete grasp of the systemic factors that influence enrollment. They will need to understand who the stakeholders are, what challenges there are, which challenges impact which groups, and in what way. To conclude, the future of higher education depends on systemic understanding of enrollment and its existing equity challenges.


Columnist of the month

This month's featured columnist is Doug Lederman. Lederman is a writer, co-editor, and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. Doug is a distinguished writer and advocates for a variety of equity in higher education topics. He has over 18 years of experience with publishing and writing, and has been invited as a keynote speaker to many universities. He was recognized as one of the top five of 'LinkedIn's Top Voices in Education' in 2020. Prior to that he won awards like the 2009 Education Writers Association's National Award for Education Reporting. Some of the equity topics he covers are about student mental health, student success, and diversity in higher education.

Some of his work for 'Inside Higher Ed' include;

You can keep up with Doug's articles through his LinkedIn profile.

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