Collaboration Among USC Researchers, Western States Seeks To Spur Minority College Success

It’s not unexpected that policies and practices aimed at higher education diversity take a lower profile than usual when college administrators have to manage budget cuts and rising tuitions. Nonetheless, a coalition of western states is seeking to make sure diversity and equity remain high priorities for their higher education systems in the coming years. 

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) and the University of Southern California’s Center for Urban Education (CUE) are partnering to make equity a state policy issue and improve policies using data to measure the success of underrepresented students at their institutions.

“During difficult financial times, concerns for equity get lost,” said WICHE President David Longanecker. “It’s easy to get consumed with fiscal distress and essentially lose focus on the important goal that all our citizens get an equal chance at a decent life.”

The project, which has won funding from the Ford Foundation, will use CUE’s action-oriented research and data tools to disaggregate data, analyze it, and strategize about specific interventions that will help increase college completion. WICHE, a regional coordinating organization that facilitates cooperation among western state higher education systems, represents 15 states from Alaska in the north, south to Hawaii and east to Colorado.

National goals to increase college completion rates by year 2020 have heightened the urgency in the western U.S. where minority population growth has outpaced policy changes at the state level.

To meet President Barack Obama’s college completion challenge, WICHE states will have to confer in the coming decade more than 2 million additional degrees over what had been projected prior to Obama’s challenge, according to data presented by CUE co-director Dr. Estela Bensimon. The western state share of additional degree completion is a quarter of that needed for the U.S. to meet the 2020 degree completion goal.

“We have some of the largest Hispanic growth in the country both percentage-wise and numerically. If we don’t do something to serve [the Hispanic student population] better, we simply can’t achieve the president’s goal,” Longanecker said. “It’s like Albert Einstein said, ‘The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’”

WICHE colleges and universities have been collecting student data to identify problem areas for years, but they have not understood the causal forces, much less the solutions, Longanecker said.

“We are reframing the problem of college completion to show that it’s not always the students,” said CUE project coordinator Dr. Sandra Luca. “We bring it back and redirect the focus on systems and institutions that need to do some changes. We show the challenge and find practical solutions for institutions to reorient themselves.”

For 10 years, CUE has been developing tools to talk about equity quantitatively, but center officials emphasize that moral and social justice imperatives also drive their work. Both the equity scorecard and the benchmarking equity and student success tool (BESST), which help education officials visualize inequities in their data. 

“In equity studies you can see dramatic gaps for underrepresented populations and that information is not well understood by state-level legislators and policy makers,” said Dr. Brian Pusser, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Virginia, who will be directing seminars for policy professionals as part of the project.

There are few places in the country that have fared worse during the recession than the western gaming state of Nevada, where unemployment rates have hovered at historic levels and vacant homes dot the arid landscape of many communities.

Despite the bleak outlook, Nevada higher education officials are looking to make significant progress by targeting a major stakeholder—Latino students.

“Our data indicates we are not successful at getting Latino students to go to college and graduate, yet they are the fastest growing demographic in the state,” said Dr. Jane Nichols, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs for the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE).

Nichols said NSHE officials know some institutional behaviors prevent students of diverse backgrounds from persisting, and the agency will look at remedial courses and STEM pedagogy with CUE to design specific targets and improve graduation rates.

“When we look at cohort data in a critical field like nursing, an area many first generation students choose, we realize we don’t have great success graduating them,” Nichols said. “We have our own assumptions about the way we teach and support students that may need to be rethought or reshaped.”

Serving students of color better also has economic importance.

“Without pulling this data, we are going to have a less educated workforce in the west. This is really something important that has accelerated in the last decade, and CUE has found the way to use data in (taking) action,” Longanecker said.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the collaboration between the Center for Urban Education and the Western Interstate Commission of Higher Education was the first time CUE tools had been used at the state level. In fact, CUE has previously worked with Wisconsin at the state system level before WICHE.