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Measuring Colleges’ Access and Diversity Efforts

sarahNot only do colleges have different goals when it comes to diversity, they don’t all define the term the same way. That has made one committee’s efforts to develop an index for rating colleges’ commitment to access and diversity a challenge, writes Sarah Pingel in a guest post. Ms. Pingel, a researcher at the Education Commission of the States, is scheduled to speak on this topic at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators’ annual meeting this week.

Can an institution’s commitments to access and diversity be quantified? And how are those commitments expressed in financial-aid policies?

Those are the difficult questions that the access and diversity committee of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators has been considering this past year. The committee, on which I served, comprises mainly financial-aid administrators and Nasfaa staff.  We were charged by Nasfaa’s leader with studying the feasibility of developing an index that could rate colleges’ commitments to access and diversity, as stated through their financial-aid policies. We examined recent higher-education research related to access and diversity, and held group discussions and presentations.

The committee found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that college is quickly becoming more expensive, and that many families run the risk of being priced out of a quality education. We sought to find out what aid offices can do to preserve access in an environment rife with increasing costs and stagnating aid. Barring an unlikely sudden infusion of financial-aid dollars, what can financial aid offices do to foster access and diversity?

We also quickly found that the concepts of access and diversity were extremely difficult to define, let alone quantify. As soon as we explored the literature, we found a broad array of understandings of what diversity is.

If diversity is understood in compositional terms, a college might create recruitment efforts that seek to reach and enroll more underrepresented students. For some campuses, diversity is a means to transform campus culture and climate. It could also be a notion espoused in a mission statement, but one that had little impact on the daily life of students, faculty, and staff.

Given the wide-ranging conceptualizations of diversity at different colleges, creating a metric that would adequately capture institutional commitment to diversity as demonstrated by financial-aid practices seemed impossible.

We also sought out examples at colleges to inform our work. Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, at the City University of New York, was one success story. ASAP boasts a graduation rate of 53 percent—more than three times higher than the national average for an urban community college. While ASAP employs small class sizes, a cohort model, and block scheduling, students’ finances are also regarded as a key component to their success. ASAP students receive support to enroll full time, get to use textbooks free of charge, and get free public transportation.

However, what worked at CUNY will not necessarily be successful in other environments, or even in other urban community-college settings. What we stand to learn from CUNY isn’t a silver bullet or magic pill that will solve the challenge of graduating more students. Rather, we learn about the importance of tuning in to inequities, and working across barriers to reduce them.

We also learn about the highly contextual nature of colleges’ access and diversity challenges. Given this, the goal of our session is to take the pulse of what institutions are doing to respond to such challenges on their own campuses, especially in the context of the Education Department’s Postsecondary Institution Ratings System.

Is a commitment to affordability something that can be quantified? Should it be quantified? As Nasfaa continues to explore these important questions, we look forward to hearing institutional perspectives both in the session, and in the comments below.

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