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Three Ways to Enhance Equity in Higher Education

Last week Julia Michaels, executive director of the Center for Public University Transformation at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, added her voice to the chorus of people saying that higher education is at a critical turning point.  

“The pandemic and a long-overdue racial reckoning have highlighted the urgency of tackling head-on the structural barriers driving inequity,” she wrote in Inside Higher Ed. “While colleges and universities have been grappling with these challenges for some time, the pandemic and racial reckoning have expanded the scale of what’s needed and accelerated the timeline for change.”

In order for higher education to work as promised for low-income and disenfranchised students, she said, there are three areas that must be addressed — and we were glad to see that each of them is something that is integral to Calbright’s model. It’s a great confirmation for us that the mission given to us by the state of California is on the right track.

The first area Michaels says needs to be addressed is Affordability: college simply costs too much and students have no bargaining power. 

Calbright addresses this by simply eliminating cost as a factor: we’re currently free for Californians, paid for by the State of California, and a key part of our model is to make sure that no student ever has to go into debt to get an education they need.

The second area Michaels focuses on is Teaching Practices and the Learning Environment. There’s considerable evidence, she says, that classroom environments are failing traditionally disenfranchised students who tend to drop out or fail in significantly higher numbers. It’s not enough just to get students through the door: colleges have to create environments where they can thrive.

Calbright’s model combines the convenience of flexible, online classes which students can take at their convenience and own pace, wherever and whenever they want, with a “high touch” approach to student support. We offer individualized success coaching, immediate academic support with hours that match student schedules, and proactive counseling. We don’t just wait for students to tell us there’s a problem: we reach out to them when we notice they’re not logging in to our system or not hitting the goals they’ve set for themselves. We believe that by combining flexibility with personalized support, we are creating learning environments where non-traditional students can thrive.

The final area Michaels addresses is Holistic Student Support. Here, too, Calbright takes a personalized, high touch approach. We offer intensive career services, working to connect our students with industry professionals and job opportunities as well as helping develop their resumes and social media profiles. We also have a series of free services we offer students through partners, such as mental health counseling, financial counseling, and legal advice — and we can further work to connect students to state and non-profit resources in their areas to help with other kinds of problems. Our students can study at their own pace and be as independent as they want, but they never have to do it alone.

There’s a lot of work left to do, in California and in higher education, but it is thrilling to know both that our approach is on the right track, and to see calls like Micheals’ for other institutions to be part of the solution. 

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