Diversity and Democracy

The Time Is Now: Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence

In 2015, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) celebrated the one-hundred-year anniversary of its founding. During this centennial year, the association made concerted efforts to raise awareness of and to address the growing inequities in higher education—reflecting our determination, in the words of AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider, “to face, publicize, and work to reverse the disparities that today disfigure both our educational system and democracy’s promise of quality education and meaningful access to opportunity for all members of our society” (2015, v). Throughout the year, AAC&U sponsored national forums and meetings, released a series of equity-focused publications, and initiated campus action projects to help colleagues engage in the conversations necessary to implement the change that is needed to advance equity in student success.

As our centennial year has drawn to a close, we are reflecting on this work and asking, “What progress has been made to advance conversations and action on equity, diversity, and learning in higher education?” Unsurprisingly, our list of action items for advancing equity in higher education has doubled since the year’s start. Thus, for AAC&U, this question does not represent the conclusion of this work. Instead, our efforts have been reenergized to continue to help our member institutions build capacity to make excellence inclusive for all students, especially those most disenfranchised and underserved by America’s educational systems.

The equity imperative in higher education is, and will continue to be, central to AAC&U’s work to improve the quality of undergraduate education. As stated in our 2013–17 strategic plan, AAC&U aims to “accelerate broad-scale systemic innovation to advance educational practices that engage diversity and challenge inequities in order to make excellence inclusive … [by] work[ing] vigorously to develop and apply twenty-first-century markers for high-quality and public-spirited liberal education on behalf of all students … [and by] proactively challeng[ing] ‘innovations’ that provide narrow, incoherent, and/or routinized learning to underserved students who need and deserve a horizon-expanding liberal education” (AAC&U 2013, 9).

A Paradigm Shift

AAC&U is calling for a paradigm shift in thinking about equity, diversity, and student learning. This paradigm shift requires the identification, examination, and dismantling of existing mindsets in higher education that serve as catalysts for marginalization, inequity, and intolerance. These mindsets impede the exploration and acceptance of difference as a core value in our democratic society and in effective educational environments.

In contrast to the old paradigm, which depends on the assumption that student achievement gaps are rooted in students’ deficits, the new paradigm must focus on institutional assessment, action, and accountability, with individual and shared responsibility deeply embedded as priorities. In the new paradigm, campus educators understand and value the assets that students bring to educational experiences, as well as the importance of institutional change and continuous improvement to better meet the needs of students, whatever they may be.

What will it take to accomplish such a paradigm shift? The answer begins with education. In 1995, AAC&U released American Pluralism and the College Curriculum: Higher Education in a Diverse Democracy. This report from AAC&U’s national initiative American Commitments: Diversity, Democracy, and Liberal Learning outlines four key curricular recommendations that are still relevant today, not only for every postsecondary student but also for every person who seeks to educate students. The authors of that report contended that “each student’s education should include explorations of the following”:

  1. Experience, identity, and aspiration: The study of one’s own particular inherited and constructed traditions, identity communities, and significant questions, in their complexity.
  2. United States pluralism and the pursuits of justice: An extended and comparative exploration of diverse peoples in this society, with significant attention to their differing experiences of United States democracy and the pursuits—sometimes successful, sometimes frustrated—of equal opportunity.
  3. Experiences in justice seeking: Encounters with systemic constraints on the development of human potential in the United States and experiences in community-based efforts to articulate principles of justice, expand opportunity, and redress inequities.
  4. Multiplicity and relational pluralism in majors, concentrations, and programs: Extensive participation in forms of learning that foster sustained exploration of deliberation about contested issues important in particular communities of inquiry and practice. (AAC&U 1995, 25)

These recommendations are designed to help students acknowledge and explore their entrenched attitudes and assumptions about diversity in the context of US democracy. But they also suggest important points of inquiry for educators, who themselves need to similarly acknowledge and explore their own attitudes and assumptions about equity, diversity, student learning, and student success, as well as the institutional and public policies that rest on these assumptions.

Unfortunately, not every student (or every educator) has access to opportunities for deep engagement with diversity like those described above. According to AAC&U’s 2015 survey of its members, only 34 percent of responding institutions require all students to participate in diversity studies and experiences (Hart Research Associates 2015, 3). How can we expect to challenge old mindsets and deconstruct implicit biases to reach new horizons for students’ success in college and beyond when only a portion of students and educators are engaging in the conversations necessary to do so?

Step Up and Lead

In its centennial year, AAC&U has focused its energies on creating spaces where conversation and inquiry about diversity, democracy, and student success, framed in the context of higher education, can occur among educators. In early 2015, we released Step Up and Lead for Equity: What Higher Education Can Do to Reverse the Deepening Divides with the goal of making the case that inequities in higher education not only persist, but are worsening—and that it will take collective action to eliminate the disparities. We then organized a series of national forums and meetings where participants could discuss the findings summarized in that report.

The data described in Step Up and Lead show stark disparities. For example, while postsecondary institutions are becoming more diverse, the degree attainment gap for low-income students (see figure 1) and students of color is widening or persisting (AAC&U 2015c, 15–16). Students of color are more likely to take three or more developmental education courses at two-year colleges than are white students (AAC&U 2015c, 17). Further, students of color experience fewer high-impact educational practices overall than do white students (see figure 2). All of these disparities contribute to deepening economic divides.

While the data send a clear message, data alone cannot catalyze change. Most educators already are acutely aware of the growing disparities in educational opportunity and achievement. The question that repeatedly echoed throughout AAC&U’s centennial forums was, How do we address the inequities? Closely following that question was, How do we motivate or create incentives for all educators (not just the champions) to address equity?


Source: The US Census Bureau’s “Current Population Survey Data on School Enrollment” (unpublished data, 2013), as presented in the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and Penn AHEAD’s Indicators of Equity in the United States (2015). Reprinted from AAC&U 2015c, 15.


Source: The National Survey of Student Engagement’s “NSSE 2013 High-Impact Practices: US Grand Percentages by Student Characteristics” (2013), as presented in Keith Witham, Lindsey E. Malcom-Piqueux, Alicia C. Dowd, and Estela Mara Bensimon’s America’s Unmet Promise: The Imperative for Equity in Higher Education (2015). Reprinted from AAC&U 2015c, 20.

Committing to Change

To help educators explore questions like these within their own institutional contexts, AAC&U released Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence: A Campus Guide for Self-Study and Planning (2015). This guide suggests specific action steps and prompts to help campus educators engage in dialogue and institutional assessment to advance equity and inclusive excellence. The guide prompts educators to evaluate their institutions’ current status in relation to the following:

  1. Knowing who [their] students are and will be
  2. Committing to frank, hard dialogues about the climate for underserved students … with the goal of effecting a paradigm shift in language and actions
  3. Investing in culturally competent practices that lead to success of underserved students—and of all students
  4. Setting and monitoring equity-minded goals1—and devoting aligned resources to achieve them
  5. Developing and actively pursuing a clear vision and goals for achieving the high-quality learning necessary [for] careers and [for] citizenship, and therefore essential [for a bachelor’s] degree
  6. Expecting and preparing all students to produce culminating or Signature Work at the associate (or sophomore) and baccalaureate levels to show their achievement of Essential Learning Outcomes,2 and monitoring data to ensure equitable participation and achievement among underserved students
  7. Providing support to help students develop guided plans to achieve Essential Learning Outcomes, prepare for and complete Signature Work, and connect college with careers
  8. Identifying high-impact practices (HIPs)3 best suited to your students and your institution’s quality framework of Essential Learning Outcomes, and working proactively to ensure equitable student participation in HIPs
  9. Ensuring that Essential Learning Outcomes are addressed and high-impact practices are incorporated across all programs, including general education, the majors, digital learning platforms, and cocurricular or community-based programs
  10. Making student achievement—including underserved student achievement—visible and valued (2015a, 5–10)

For some, this list may seem overwhelming. Achievement of each step requires high levels of commitment; access to data, time, and resources; and, most importantly, full inclusion of the campus community. So, how should campuses engage with assessing and implementing the action steps?

AAC&U’s efforts over the past year, including our work with campus-based educators, have suggested several recommendations for how to best use the guide. First, the action steps should not be considered the sole responsibility of a single designated committee. Success greatly depends on the engagement of all campus educators. Conversations should involve stakeholders at all levels, and campus leaders should offer and invite ideas and reflections in settings that are inclusive, not exclusive. In addition, each institution’s action steps should be tied to the campus’s strategic plan and vision for student learning and success, with all stakeholders held accountable for specific implementation responsibilities. Further, using the guide should not constitute an additional initiative. Instead, the action steps should be embedded into the institution’s current and future work and goals.

Institutional context matters, and each campus will enter the conversation at the point that best suits its institutional culture. Where an institution begins depends on where the institution is in terms of its development of a student success framework. However, regardless of institutional context, the common starting point involves knowing who your students are and will be. This means much more than knowing student demographics. It means understanding students’ “cultural wealth” (see Kanagala, Rendón, and Nora’s article in this issue). It means valuing their individual identities in and out of the classroom. It means understanding the various ways students learn and express knowledge. It means appreciating the sacrifices and challenges that many students encounter as they pursue an education. A clear understanding of these aspects of students’ lived experiences will shape how an institution designs, implements, and analyzes its action steps.

Finally, institutions need to build their capacity to collect and analyze the data required to set equity goals. Findings from AAC&U’s 2015 member survey indicate, for example, that more than 70 percent of respondents are tracking students’ participation in high-impact practices, their completion of specific credit/course milestones, and their achievement of learning outcomes, but very few are disaggregating these data by race/ethnicity, income, or parents’ level of education (Hart Research Associates 2015, 5). It’s not surprising, then, that only about one-third of respondents have specific goals “aimed at building new opportunities for high-impact learning for first-generation students, low-income students, and/or students of color” (although another 37 percent “are planning to develop” these goals) (11), or that few institutions are “setting explicit goals for closing achievement gaps in student learning outcomes or participation in high-impact educational practices” (2).

A Call to Action

To return to the original question: through AAC&U’s work over the past year, “what progress has been made to advance conversations and action on equity, diversity, and learning in higher education?” While we have raised awareness and helped advance our member institutions’ efforts to identify promising strategies and critical questions and name institutional capacity needs, there is still much to be done if our continued, collective efforts to eliminate inequities in higher education are to be successful.

As part of a project launched in 2015 and titled Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence: Campus-Based Strategies for Student Success (funded by USA Funds and Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation & Affiliates), AAC&U and the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California are working with thirteen institutions to develop campus action plans that address a series of equity goals. These goals include increasing access to and participation in HIPs for underserved students; increasing course completion, retention, and graduation rates for low-income, first-generation, adult, and/or minority students; increasing achievement of learning outcomes for underserved students as measured using tools, including AAC&U’s VALUE Rubrics (see www.aacu.org/VALUE), that directly assess students’ actual work; and increasing student awareness and understanding of the value of guided learning pathways that incorporate HIPs and that lead to students’ success both as workers and as engaged citizens. We hope that this project will produce strategies that can further advance the work of institutions across higher education as they commit to advancing equity and inclusive excellence.

The time for change is now. That is why AAC&U’s call to action, to ourselves and to our members, remains: “step up and lead.”


1. For an explanation of the term “equity-minded,” see Bensimon 2007.
2. AAC&U defines Signature Work as occurring when “a student uses his or her cumulative learning to pursue a significant project related to a problem she or he defines. In the project[,] conducted throughout at least one semester, the student takes the lead and produces work that expresses insights and learning gained from the inquiry and demonstrates the skills and knowledge she or he has acquired. Faculty and mentors provide support and guidance” (AAC&U 2015b, 2). For more information about Signature Work or about the Essential Learning Outcomes identified through AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise initiative, see http://www.aacu.org/leap/.
3. For more information about high-impact practices and their effects on student learning, see http://www.aacu.org/resources/high-impact-practices.


AAC&U (Association of American Colleges and Universities). 1995. American Pluralism and the College Curriculum: Higher Education in a Diverse Democracy. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

———. 2013. Big Questions, Urgent Challenges: Liberal Education and Americans’ Global Future. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

———. 2015a. Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence: A Campus Guide for Self-Study and Planning. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

———. 2015b. The LEAP Challenge: Education for a World of Unscripted Problems. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

———. 2015c. Step Up and Lead for Equity: What Higher Education Can Do to Reverse Our Deepening Divides. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

Bensimon, Estela Mara. 2007. “The Underestimated Significance of Practitioner Knowledge in the Scholarship of Student Success.” Review of Higher Education 30 (4): 441–69.

Hart Research Associates. 2015. Bringing Equity and Quality Learning Together: Institutional Priorities for Tracking and Advancing Underserved Students’ Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Schneider, Carol Geary. 2015. “Foreword.” America’s Unmet Promise: The Imperative for Equity in Higher Education, by Keith Witham, Lindsey E. Malcom-Piqueux, Alicia C. Dowd, and Estela Mara Bensimon, v–ix. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Tia Brown McNair is vice president for diversity, equity, and student success at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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