Closing Equity Gaps in Higher Education

Blog Closing Equity Gaps

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Higher education, at its core, should open minds to knowledge and doors to opportunity. But disparities deeply rooted in our systems and culture continue as barriers to student success.  

The higher education community is no stranger to considering equity issues, but the conversation about student equity has broadened beyond the traditional notion of simply promoting access to postsecondary education. Now, transformational leaders seek to remove barriers to success and ensure that each student receives what they need to be successful throughout their college experience.

Data analytics and technology can be important allies in this work. Together they not only equip colleges and universities with important information about how students are performing. They also provide the insights and tools needed to identify the underlying “why” and prescribe interventions that address a particular student’s needs, today. 

In this article, we share several of the most effective data-activated Student Impact Strategies partner institutions across our community use to close equity gaps in student outcomes. These approaches include: 

  1. Collect Data and Use Insights to Take Action
  2. Go Beyond Demographics and Historical Academic Data
  3. Understand the Impact of Student Success Services and Programs 
  4. Use Automated Alerts and Messages with Caution
  5. Accommodate Student Needs with Holistic Planning and Scheduling
  6. Enable Academic Advisors to Do Their Highest and Best Work

But before we dive into how our partners use data analytics and technology to close equity gaps in student success, let’s take a moment to explore why data analytics and technology solutions are an essential part of this work.

How Data Analytics and Technology Help Close Equity Gaps

Equity, as Achieving the Dream defines it, is “ensuring that each student receives what he or she needs to be successful through the intentional design of the college experience” —though the organization recommends that each institution define what equity means on its campus. 

As higher education continues to become a more resource-constrained environment, it may feel impossible to provide adequate student support services to ensure each student receives what they need to be successful. But scaling student support services doesn’t necessarily mean increasing student support staff or expanding student support programs. 

Student impact analytics paired with student success technology give your student support teams the real-time visibility they need to anticipate student needs, develop effective student success strategies, and take coordinated action to achieve more equitable outcomes. Existing processes can unintentionally reinforce barriers if student support teams don’t have insight into the effectiveness of student success initiatives for specific students and sub-populations. When you know what’s working for your students, the path to remove the hidden barriers and unintended consequences that limit equity and student success becomes much clearer. 

Data and technology solutions, like the Civitas Learning Student Impact Platform, empower institutions to identify how to address specific equity gaps. Faculty and staff gain visibility to understand barriers with clarity and prescribe the right interventions. Administrators become equipped with real-time data to fine-tune initiatives, policies, and investments to influence the success of students and institutions.


For a closer look at our findings on what student support initiatives advance equitable student outcomes download our fall 2020 report, Community Insights: What Matters Most For Equity.

6 Ways Data and Technology Help Close Equity Gaps in Higher Education

Yes, data and predictive analytics can help you identify which students are most likely to succeed on your campus. But more importantly, they should provide you with insights that you can act on to meaningfully change students’ outcomes. Partners across our community are using the Civitas Learning® platform to do just that. 

Here are some of the most effective evidence-based approaches our partner institutions use to close equity gaps and improve outcomes on their campuses:

1. Collect Data and Use Insights to Take Action

The ability to continuously collect and monitor data allows institutions to diagnose student needs and prescribe interventions that work for particular students or student groups. This approach provides a clearer, quicker path toward student equity. The willingness to go beyond assumptions—and then respond accordingly—can be the difference between spending years researching the issue of equity, or moving ahead now with initiatives that facilitate more equitable outcomes.

Unfortunately,  collecting data to examine the impact of services, programming, and interventions on equity has been minimal. Traditional measures of student support programs have focused primarily on student satisfaction, participation levels, and general results. While useful, these measures do not control for selection bias or provide sufficient specificity about impacts on particular students or sub-populations. 

Instead of making assumptions about what works and for whom, data analytics and technology solutions provide the infrastructure needed to collect and synthesize data to provide a breadth of insights into your students’ needs, today. 

In some cases, while an intervention has a positive impact on overall persistence, some student subpopulations experience a negative or neutral impact—and vice versa. General trends can provide community benchmarks and broader signals, but an institution’s specific data and analytics should inform the actions taken for their students.

2. Go Beyond Demographics and Historical Academic Data

For the greatest benefit to your students and institution, look beyond just demographic breakdowns. Instead, consider who has the highest level of predicted vulnerability or risk among all groups of students, right now.

Historically prioritized students might not always be the ones who need support most. Instead of designing outreach according to student status – first-generation, financial aid received, or demographic information, for example – look also at predictors of success within each subpopulation to determine what students need. 

Demographics are not something people can change. Incorporating engagement and behavior data provides actionable context to help guide students towards better outcomes. Incorporating this information is critical for a more timely and equitable approach to understanding your students. Additionally, more robust, real-time views of student vulnerability or risk help avoid reductionist thinking or generalizations about who needs support.

3. Understand the Impact of Student Success Services and Programs

Understanding the impact of student success programs for historically underserved students is an important consideration in your work to create more inclusive student experiences and learning journeys.

Colleges and universities need to know which of their students – specifically – might be vulnerable, and when, for different outcomes. In other words: Who needs support at what time? What works and for whom? Which combinations of strategies best accomplish the goal of promoting equity in student success?

By examining institution-specific data in a variety of ways, schools can get a complete picture of the combination of support services to employ. An institution can analyze initiatives and policies, starting with the most used, to understand the impact for different types of students. Advisors and support staff can use this information to connect students with the most effective resources. Administrators and institutional research (IR) teams can consider this information when making investment decisions or evaluating adjustments to policies and practices. 

Additionally, evaluating program effectiveness using a more comprehensive indicator of risk, that includes more student attributes and behavioral data to segment the analytics, reveals that students with the highest predicted risk stand to benefit most from student success plans. 

This is great news for student success leadership and teams because connecting these students with those resources can have a direct impact on their success and improve the ROI of the program investment.

4. Use Automated Alerts and Messages with Caution

For students who are predicted to be most vulnerable or at risk, highlighting their academic struggle may do more harm than good. Regardless of the system or process, you use to identify struggle, highlighting a student’s risk through an automated flag or transactional message sent directly to the student magnifies their vulnerability.

Automated alerts and flags, intended to scale student outreach and provide early notifications for at-risk students, had the highest percentage of negative or insignificant impact on students among the program categories we analyzed in an examination of what matters most for equity

If your institution uses early alerts it’s important to be intentional about the way advisors and student support teams communicate these risks to students. When your student support staff contacts students, avoid formal or transactional messaging. Instead, craft communication to include personalization and growth-mindset-based messaging that lets your students know how much you care about them. 

Student Impact data as part of a student success solution enables student support teams to both scale personalized outreach and effectively coordinate student support efforts that improve equitable outcomes. 

If the goal is to keep students on their academic journey, then it is vital to prioritize inclusivity when connecting with and supporting students. It’s critical to equip advising and student support with an ability to proactively engage students and tools to create a network of support that improves outcomes.

RELATED BLOG: An Early Alert About Early Alerts

Discover how your college or university’s automated early alert messaging may be undermining college student success on your campus.

5. Accommodate Student Needs with Holistic Planning and Scheduling

First-time students and returning students alike often struggle to navigate the process of course registration. They feel unclear about what courses they need to take or unable to create a course schedule that accommodates other obligations in their life. This uncertainty can result in late registration which compounds a student’s ability to persist or even complete their degree program on time.

When student planning and registration tools are coupled with Student Impact data, advisors can help students build plans and schedules that support their priorities, preferences, and goals. Advisors can reduce uncertainty about where to start when they preload schedule recommendations for students before their registration process.

Institutions that help students balance their learning with their life enhance a student’s ability to succeed despite their circumstances. Otherwise, institutions risk perpetuating barriers based on a student’s ability to make learning their top priority.

Student Impact data and student success solutions can help institutions understand long and short-term course demand to ensure students have access to the courses they need. Enrollment teams can use data collected about student schedule preferences and breaks to offer class sections that help students strike a balance between school and life.

RELATED BLOG: 4 Ways to Remove Barriers to Course Registration

Explore how actionable analytics, case management, and communication tools can help your academic advising team remove barriers to registration by engaging with students in ways that better align with their needs.

6. Enable Academic Advisors to Do Their Highest & Best Work

Our analysis on what works for equity, suggests that holistic academic advising practices improve outcomes for historically underserved and vulnerable populations most consistently. This doesn’t mean that institutions must hire more advisors or ask advisors to do more. Most institutions cannot afford to simply hire more advisors, so instead, those that effectively scale holistic academic advising make sure their advisors are enabled to do their best work effectively and efficiently. 

To make the biggest impact every day, teams should look at specific success predictions to prioritize advisor-student engagement instead of assuming a certain student population needs support. This approach means advising and enrollment teams focus their limited time on the students who need their support immediately. The students who need advising support are also less likely to seek it out. Using data to get a more comprehensive view of what students need and prioritize where to engage early means advisors can proactively support students and focus time where they will have the biggest impact. 

More Equitable Outcomes for Students Are Within Reach

These findings mean that an advisor’s relationships with students matters, personalized outreach matters, and proactive attention to student needs matters. There is also a tremendous opportunity to leverage deeper intelligence to guide work to address equity gaps, challenge unconscious bias, and dismantle barriers that are limiting student success.

More equitable outcomes for the students we serve are within our reach. We understand that it’s not always obvious to know where or how to start the critical work to address disparities, but together, we can. Even best practices won’t guarantee improved outcomes. Knowing what works for your students on your campus does. When we look closer, it’s clear that improving visibility across campus and prioritizing the student experience makes all the difference.


For more information on how to take action to achieve more equitable outcomes on your campus download the Equity Playbook.

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