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Planning for Quality and Equity: It’s Now or Never

The 2020–21 academic year is unfolding as a time of unprecedented complexity. Higher education faces the confluence of a dangerous pandemic, an economic recession, and a heightened awareness of systemic racism. We recognize and salute the dedication, creativity, and undaunted commitment to students that faculty and administrators bring to these new realities.

Before the necessary triage that took most of our attention this spring, educators across all sectors were energetically leading a broad array of quality and equity reform endeavors designed to ensure that colleges and universities would expand opportunities for the nation’s new majority of college learners: first-generation students, students of color, adults, and military veterans—often working, often low-income.

Conventional wisdom might indicate that institutions should maintain a holding pattern on those reforms for the coming academic year. As long-term leaders in ongoing reform efforts, we urge a different view.

The 2020–21 academic year will be a watershed moment in which quality and equity reforms that already were in the making will either accelerate or die. Now is the time to bring quality and equity redesign to the center of your institution’s post-triage planning.

Now is not the time to cut programs and requirements in liberal learning, although that might be a predictable knee-jerk reaction. If the powers-that-be insist on programmatic surgery or consolidation, please do not permit numbers alone to be the guide. It is time for transformation, not elimination.

To assist your efforts, we have put together In the Wake of the Pandemic, a free online tool kit for educators advancing quality and equity reforms. These tool kit resources are yours to revise and amend as needed:

  • Quality, Equity, and Post-Triage Planning: This working paper provides a succinct description of top priority reforms—such as high-impact practices—that educators already were advancing to better support powerful learning for today’s new majority learners. This paper also reminds us why omitting broad liberal learning for new majority learners—as budget cutters may be tempted to do—will only deepen the disparities that disfigure our democracy.
  • Questions to Ask About Quality and Equity Priorities: This tool is a single-page handout you can give to any colleague or discuss at any meeting. It poses questions to explore at the institutional, general education, and departmental program levels. Taken together, the questions outline an action agenda for braiding quality and supports for student success into all parts of the educational experience, and for preparing students, especially those historically underserved, to help create solutions for a diverse, divided, and deeply inequitable society.
  • A Rubric You Can Use for Program Evaluation and Review: This rubric provides a point of departure for program review and restructuring. Used at Governors State University during a state budget crisis, the rubric weaves educational mission, quality learning, diversity, and contributions to other programs (such as general education) into its criteria for decision making.

If you’re reading this post, you already know the importance of a high-quality liberal education for all students, especially those students for whom higher education is the most likely route to a better life. We know you’ll bring your own wisdom to the post-triage planning, and we hope you will share with us any improvements or additions to this tool kit.

The bottom line is that all educators involved in post-triage planning must braid quality and equity together as the hallmarks of higher education redesign. What’s working well now for new majority students? What new learning is needed—for students and for our colleges and universities—as we endeavor to create a more equitable and inclusive society? How well are we preparing our students—all students—to probe such questions as social power and voice, systemic racism, and ongoing struggles for justice and a sustainable future?

As the pandemic is forcefully reminding us, the complexities of our world make liberal learning a necessity, not a luxury. Neither quality nor equity is achievable without it.

 

Carol Geary Schneider is president emerita of AAC&U and a consultant for Lumina Foundation. Elaine P. Maimon is past president of Governors State University and special adviser to the president at the American Council on Education. They encourage users of the tool kit to share ideas for improvements or additions to the tool kit by emailing Elaine or Carol.

Have an idea for a blog post? Write to Ben Dedman at dedman@aacu.org.