Diversity and Democracy

From the Editor: Advancing Equity on Campuses and in Communities

If you are near a computer and have Internet access, take a moment to visit the Opportunity Index (www.opportunityindex.org) and note the array of shades, from vibrant to pallid, mapping relative levels of opportunity in locales across the nation. The index points to the interlocking nature of educational, economic, and community factors in determining who has the best chance to succeed. It also underscores that equal access to opportunity remains an unrealized dream in many municipalities across the United States.

Fittingly, postsecondary educational attainment is one factor the index uses to measure opportunity. As the Association of American Colleges and Universities has long argued, higher education in general and liberal education in particular can and should provide pathways to opportunity, broadly defined. Higher education also should build the skills, knowledge, and social and intellectual capital that students and society need to create thriving communities. But disparities in access to and success within higher education can codify rather than combat inequality, particularly for underserved students and their communities.

For example, access to higher education varies deeply by socioeconomic status, with only 53.5 percent of recent high school graduates in the lowest income quintile enrolled in college in 2011, compared with 82.4 percent in the highest quintile (National Center for Education Statistics 2012). Degree attainment differs by factors like race and ethnicity, with African American, American Indian, and Hispanic students less likely than their peers to earn a baccalaureate degree within six years (Hughes 2013, 30). And in the classroom, students’ educational experiences vary widely, with students from certain historically underserved groups less likely to participate in some high-impact educational practices (Kuh 2008, 16–17).

In the face of these disparities, it is critical for colleges and universities to take a close look at their own roles in advancing equity on campuses and in communities. Where do disparities in access and success—including disparities in access to a high-quality liberal education—manifest on campus and in the classroom? Which students not only enter and complete higher education, but also benefit from the best educational practices our institutions can offer? How can higher education ensure that all students, regardless of background or personal characteristics, have access to what AAC&U’s recent strategic plan, with its focus on inclusive excellence, calls “a liberal and liberating education that engages all college students with big questions and real-world challenges, in both US and global contexts, and develops the capacities and the commitment to solve problems across difference” (2013, 1)?

With these questions in mind, this issue of Diversity & Democracy examines higher education’s role in advancing equity, both on campuses and in communities. The issue features examples of institutional leadership and campus models for diversity and equity that simultaneously advance underserved students’ educational access and success and promote the flourishing of institutions, communities, democracy, and global society at large. Contributing authors address old barriers based in discrimination and new opportunities related to demographic change, sharing practices and programs that pursue established ideals about national identity and new aspirations for global engagement. They offer perspective on recent legal challenges to higher education’s efforts to create diverse student bodies—particularly the Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin, pending as this issue goes to press. They highlight educational models that explicitly contribute to community advancement, and they call on readers to consider student success as an investment in thriving communities.

These efforts to advance equity have high stakes, not only for America’s students, but also for our society and the various local, regional, national, and global communities that constitute it. With focused and intentional efforts, higher education can play its part in deepening the hues of the Opportunity Index across the nation, building a map as vibrant as the communities it represents.


Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2013. “Big Questions, Urgent Challenges: Liberal Education and Americans’ Global Future.” Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Hughes, Katherine. 2013. The College Completion Agenda: 2012 Progress Report. Washington, DC: The College Board. http://completionagenda.collegeboard.org.

Kuh, George. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

National Center for Education Statistics. 2012. “Percentage of Recent High School Completers Enrolled in 2-year and 4-year colleges, by Income Level: 1975 through 2011 (Table 210.5).” Digest of Education Statistics 2012. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, US Department of Education. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d12/tables/dt12_00b.asp.

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