Leadership & Governance

Getting Traction in Closing the Inequality Gap

March 18, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza

The Education Trust’s president, Kati Haycock, says colleges that are serious about helping low-income students succeed should make it their job from Day 1: "Institutions turn out to be much more powerful in determining student success than we ever knew."

KARIN FISCHER: Hi. I'm Karin Fischer, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. I'm here today with Kati Haycock of The Education Trust, an advocacy-and-research group that focuses on inequality in higher education. Thanks for coming by today, Kati.

KATI HAYCOCK: Delighted to be here, Karin.

KARIN FISCHER: I think it goes without saying, the conversation we're about to have is not a new conversation. Higher education has really been grappling with issues of inequality for years, for decades, even. Why has it been so hard to move the dial on this issue?

KATI HAYCOCK: There are probably a lot of reasons why it's been hard to move it. But most of all it has to do with institutions' perceptions about sort of what's possible, and the kind of widespread belief in higher ed that one success as an institution, and especially in terms of student success, is largely a function of who you admit, and that the only way to get better is to become ever more selective, as opposed to do a better job with the students you admit.

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One of the things that we have certainly come to understand is, well, yes, certainly things like student preparation and poverty and so on affect an institution's success. But institutions turn out to be much more powerful in determining student success than we ever knew. So the choices they make turn out to be way more important, and our ability to get traction on that is really important.

KARIN FISCHER: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that, because I think it can be very easy as colleges to say, well, look, students are coming in unprepared. They come in with headwinds. There's only so much that we can do. But what responsibility, what role do colleges and universities play in perpetuating this inequality?

KATI HAYCOCK: So we've been working on this as an organization for a very long time. And some of our initial work really started back in the early 1990s, when we were working with colleges and school districts and community leaders together, and communities around the country, to try to get some traction on both raising overall achievement in college-going rates, but also closing longstanding gaps between groups.

And one of the things that we did at that time is ask people to come to the initial organizing meetings with data. And K-12 people in those years pretty much knew what to bring, their achievement data, their high-school graduation, and so on. The college people would say, you know, data? What are you really talking about here? And we'd say, well, why don't you at least start by bringing your graduation-rate data?

And they'd bring it in, and we'd sit around a table with, again, K-12 community leaders and higher-ed folks. And when it got around to the moment of putting the higher-ed data on the table, people around the table were shocked. You'd have maybe a 17-percent graduation rate. And K-12 people are saying, whoa, you know, it's not like we're keeping our best kids home. We're sending you the best we have, and you're graduating 17 percent of them?

And the college folks would typically say, yeah, but that's about what other institutions around the country that serve the same kind of students get. You know, the first time you hear that, you say, huh, I wonder if that's true. The 400th time you hear that, you begin to say, now wait a second. People in K-12 used to say that, right, if they served poor kids and they only had 2 percent proficient, they'd say, well, it's about like other urban schools.

They don't say that anymore, because we know in K-12 that schools that really focus on getting all kids to high achievement levels can actually do that. So we built a system that was really aimed at answering that question. When you look at similar institutions that serve the same kinds of students, do they actually get the same graduation rates? And the answer is no, that among institutions that serve roughly the same kind of students, there can be 10, 20, even more percentage points different in their success rate.

And what's, in the end, at the bottom of that is not something weird about the kids. It's about the institution and how deliberate they are in working on and monitoring and acting around student-success issues from the moment students arrive at the campus.

KARIN FISCHER: Talk to me a little bit about the data. What are some things that colleges ought to be looking at, to be focusing on? What are things that you think are particularly telling in the data about student success?

KATI HAYCOCK: Sure. One of things that we've learned is that the colleges that move the needle in student success in terms of their four-, five-, or six-year graduation rates are not those that focus on their four-, five-, or six-year graduation rates. By the time you get those data, that's essentially an autopsy. It doesn't tell you what to do.

The institutions that are really moving the needle are asking the question, how are students doing week one, week two, week five? How many are coming to class? How many aren't? How many are doing OK on their assignments? How many aren't? And acting immediately when they see students falling off the path.

Some institutions are doing that with just kind of simple processes, asking faculty members to attend to things like attendance and so on. Others are building very big data systems to actually monitor student progress through the institution, and have very sophisticated systems in acting aggressively.

But the bottom line, whether you have a simple paper system or a fancy data system, is the same. And that is focusing immediately on students once they get through the door, and making sure that they're successful, intervening when they're not, all the way along.

KARIN FISCHER: You were talking before about the incentives, sort of how colleges are encouraged to measure their success broadly as institutions. What are the disincentives that are kind of structurally built in to higher education that kind of discourage colleges from really acting upon these issues of inequality?

KATI HAYCOCK: The reality is, almost every incentive that operates in higher ed today discourages institutions from both admitting large numbers of low-income students and students of color and working on their success. Such students are more challenging, they're more expensive, they bring your ratings down.

There's nothing in the ether around higher ed today, whether you're talking about public or private higher education, that recognizes those that really go out of their way to do a good job and that gives you any points in any rating system. If anything, all of those pressures cut in the opposite direction. And that is especially true in public higher education today as states have disinvested, and the very students who we need to graduate as a country become prohibitively expensive for some institutions.

KARIN FISCHER: We've been sort of putting a lot of blame or a lot of responsibility at the feet of colleges here in this country. But you do work with a lot of colleges that are serious about improving the success of low-income students, of students from minority backgrounds, from first-generation students. What are some particularly successful or promising, at least, strategies that you've seen colleges undertake?

KATI HAYCOCK: Sure. I mean, what is interesting, given the incentives cutting in the opposite direction, is how many campuses still are really trying to focus here. So what distinguishes those that are really moving the needle?

Number one, it really is about presidential leadership. At the institutions that are making real progress on student-learning results and student success, the president has made this a real priority in every speech that he or she gives, in every major address to the faculty, in every opportunity he or she has to reiterate that successful institutions don't not graduate large numbers of their poor kids or kids of color. So presidential leadership's really big.

But if anything, the provost turns out to be probably the most critical linchpin. He or she is the person who ties the presidential focus to actual moving the needle in academic departments and elsewhere throughout the institution. And the provosts that make a difference seem to be, almost consistently, data nerds. They're self-described data nerds.

They may be English professors, but they're leaders that actually have learned the data are a friend here, that it's really helpful, yourself, to begin to dig into the numbers, to understand what's going on in students in this college versus that college, in this department versus that department, and to begin to move that data into discussions with deans, with department chairs, and really begin to make that important in how those leaders elsewhere in the institution see their roles.

The same thing happens on the student-advising side. It's really about using data to monitor student progress, to actually inquire about what's going on, to advance some hypotheses to make some changes, and then to monitor whether those work or not. So it's a lot about driving data into the routines of the institution to make sure that those become how people think about their roles.

KARIN FISCHER: You've, as we said, spent a number of years really focusing on trying to make progress in this area. And I just wonder if you could talk a little bit about where your passion for this issue comes from.

KATI HAYCOCK: So I started my career with the University of California system and was sort of put in charge, at a very young age, of the University of California's efforts to attain — by 1980, if you can believe this — a student population that looked like the high-school graduates of California. We were, of course, then very far away from that as a highly selective institution.

But the process of helping faculty, staff, and students in those nine universities to kind of look at the barriers that were getting in the way, to begin to examine what we needed to do as an institution — both within our own borders but also with school districts — was kind of what captivated me about the importance of this.

But in the end it's really about — I think all of us at Ed Trust think about this work as about making the country a better place, right? When you think about the promise of America and you look at how far off we are from that, you can't help but believe that bringing about change in both K-12 and higher education, and really beginning to make sure that all young Americans have the opportunities they need to succeed in this increasingly knowledge-based economy. That's why we do what we do, to help make the country a better place and help the country live up to its promise.

KARIN FISCHER: Kati, thank you for the fascinating conversation.

KATI HAYCOCK: Thank you.