Equity Audits in Higher Education, Part One: What Is an Equity Audit?
When I send birthday cards to my nieces and nephews, some get more cash than others based on their age, their current job status, and other relevant life events, such as recent car trouble. This is one small way that I can wish everyone a happy birthday while providing extra assistance to loved ones who need it most. Their needs vary from year to year. My point is that equality and equity are two different things. To be equal is to maintain sameness; to be equitable is to achieve fairness—even when sameness gives way to variance, as with my annual birthday card enclosures.
In the field of education, Green (2017) defined equity as “fair access to and distribution of opportunities, power, and resources, within and outside of schools” (p. 6). Educational equity, then, can be defined as “a state in which dimensions of privilege and oppression (e.g., race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, religion) are not predictive of or correlated with educational outcomes . . . and where all learners are able to participate fully in quality learning experiences” (Poekert et al., 2020, pp. 541–542). This definition is appropriate for all learners, from pre-kindergarten through graduate school.
Unfortunately, education is not always equitable. In a study investigating access to the United States’ most prestigious colleges and universities, Astin and Oseguera (2004) noted that students from higher-income families gained admission to top schools more readily than students from lower-income families. In another study, an audit of 27 Australian universities revealed that international students were less likely than Australian natives to be placed in work-related internships, disproportionately hindering their employability upon graduation (Andrew, 2020).
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 brought issues of inequity in higher education into the spotlight. Maloney and Kim (2020) observed that when college students were sent home to learn online, many students from economically disadvantaged home environments struggled to find quiet places to study, reliable Wi-Fi, and access to academic and social support. Moreover, an impending “demographic cliff” is projected to bring greater diversity —and, potentially, greater inequity—to American colleges and universities. Experts predict that within the next five years, the overall number of high school graduates will decrease and the high school graduates entering college will be more racially and socioeconomically diverse than ever before.
With this in mind, Bombardieri (2019) recently posed an important question:
College administrators are very often in the dark about the experience of low-income students and students of color on their own campuses. They may know the graduation rates by race and ethnicity for their schools, but do they understand how policies and practices at their institutions contribute to these outcomes? (para. 2)
Equity audits are one tool educators can use to decide how much money to enclose in each birthday card (so to speak). This article, the first of a three-part series, provides an overview of what equity audits are and illustrates how today’s colleges and universities can use them to identify and address inequities.
A brief history
Equity audits have been part of the P–12 education landscape for years. The Coleman Report, published in 1966, was one of the first scholarly publications to document how race and poverty negatively affect students’ educational attainment. Years of research and educational programming to address issues of inequity followed. In 2001, the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act was signed into law, requiring all P–12 schools to disaggregate student achievement in reading and math by race, gender, socioeconomic status, and special needs in an effort to narrow achievement gaps among student groups. In 2015, NCLB was replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which continued to require annual testing and school accountability but also allowed schools to set customized proficiency targets and use measures of student achievement beyond standardized test scores.
During this time period, largely due to raised awareness of educational inequities, the equity audit gained recognition as a tool for objectively analyzing discrepancies among students in P–12 education. Skrla and colleagues (2004), who significantly advanced the effort, explained that equity audits provide a practical tool that educators can use “in developing a more comprehensive, more insightful understanding of equity and inequity relationships in their current systems” (p. 138). As a result, equity audits are now well established in today’s P–12 schools, but they continue to be underused in higher education.
What is an equity audit?
Bombardieri (2019) recently described equity audits in higher education as “internal reviews of key policies and practices to identify those that fail to effectively serve underrepresented students” (para. 4). Harris and Hopson (2008) explained that equity audits are conducted “to explore accountability for equity and excellence by investigating an area of concern” (p. 345). The ultimate goal of an equity audit is systemic equity: a process of regularly monitoring and modifying institution-wide structures, practices, and policies to ensure that all students can be successful. Such practices and policies include—but are not limited to—comparable academic achievement across student subgroups, unbiased opportunities to learn and to participate, equitable distribution of resources, and consistent decision-making processes across all individuals and groups.
Skrla and colleagues (2004) recommended the following process for conducting school-wide equity audits: (1) form a committee, (2) collect data, (3) present and discuss the meaning of the data, (4) discuss potential solutions for remediating inequities, (5) implement the solutions, and (6) monitor and evaluate the results. Green (2017) developed a similar process for conducting community-based equity audits: (1) disrupt deficit views of community, (2) conduct an initial inquiry, (3) develop a community leadership team, and (4) collect “equity, asset-based community data” for action (p. 17).
Whether conducting an equity in one classroom, across an entire unit, or campus-wide, collaboration through discussion, consensus, and action is a critical part of the process. When analyzing the collected data, Felix and colleagues (2015) suggest asking three questions: (1) How does [name of program, office, or policy] work? (2) Who benefits? (3) Who is disadvantaged? Skrla and colleagues (2009) ask, What is the degree to which these indicators are distributed equitably or inequitably? Dodman and colleagues (2021) consider, What will increase and deepen equity in our school? To fully answer these questions, both quantitative data (such as test scores and graduation rates) and qualitative data (such as classroom observations and student focus groups) are necessary.
So what does an equity audit in higher education look like? The final segment of this article provides an illustration of how an equity audit can be used to raise awareness and take action on behalf of college students.
An equity audit illustration
At one university, the Department of Communication requires undergraduate students to meet with their academic advisor one time each fall and spring semester. If they fail to do so, an advising hold keeps them from registering for classes. For years, this advising system seemed to work well, but a department-wide equity audit revealed that first-year, first-generation students were dropping courses more frequently than other student subgroups, causing them to fall behind their peers in accumulating college credits. After viewing a graph of the equity audit findings and discussing possible reasons for the dropped courses, faculty in the department implemented two new practices: (1) advise first-generation students not to register for “high-drop” courses during their first year and (2) check in with first-generation students at least once each semester during their first year in addition to their required academic advising appointment. This equity audit alerted department faculty to the fact that some of their students needed extra assistance, and their interventions were successful. An equity audit one year later showed that the department’s interventions were working. Fewer first-year, first-generation students were dropping courses, and the overall grade point average of this student subgroup had increased slightly.
Recognizing that education takes place within political and organizational contexts that are influenced by individuals’ identities and beliefs, Dodman and colleagues (2021) advocated for the use of equity audits as catalysts for “critical data-driven decision making” (p. 5). Indeed, equity audits can serve as a basis for self-reflection, as a prompt for engaging in authentic discussions, and as impetus for modifying structures and implementing meaningful changes in educational policies and practices. Similar to slipping extra cash into the birthday card of your under-employed nephew, Felix and colleagues referred to such positive action as “purposeful agency” (p. 26). This article provided an overview of what equity audits are and illustrated their usefulness in identifying and addressing inequities in today’s colleges and universities. Part two will explore how equity audits can be used as a means for leadership development.
Andrew, L. (2020). Ensuring equitable work-integrated learning opportunities for international students. Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, 17(4), 1–8.
Astin, A. W., & Osequera, L. (2004). The declining “equity” of American higher education. The Review of Higher Education, 27(3), 321–341. https://doi.org/10.1353/rhe.2004.0001
Bleyaert, B. (2011). Is compliance “trumping” mission? Findings from an equity audit pilot. International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, 6(4), 1–11.
Bombardieri, M. (2019, April 3). Equity audits: A tool for campus improvement. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-postsecondary/news/2019/04/03/465193/equity-audits-tool-campus-improvement
Dodman, S. L., Swalwell, K., DeMulder, E. K., View, J. L., & Stribling, S. M. (2021). Critical data-driven decision making: A conceptual model of data use for equity. Teaching and Teacher Education, 99, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2020.103272
Felix, E. R., Bensimon, E. M., Hanson, D., Gray, J., & Klingsmith, L. (2015). Developing agency for equity-minded change. New Directions for Community Colleges, 172, 25–42. https://doi.org/10.1002/cc.20161
Green, T. L. (2017). Community-based equity audits: A practical approach for educational leaders to support equitable community-school improvements. Educational Administration Quarterly, 53(1), 3–39. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0013161X16672513
Harris, S., & Hopson, M. (2008). Using an equity audit investigation to prepare doctoral students for social justice leadership. Teacher Development, 12(4), 341–352. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13664530802579926
Maloney, E. J., & Kim, J. (2020, May 21). The challenge of equity in higher education under COVID-19. Inside Higher Ed.https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/learning-innovation/challenge-equity-higher-education-under-covid-19
Poekert, P. E., Swaffield, S., Demir, E. K., & Wright, S. A. (2020). Leadership for professional learning towards educational equity: A systematic literature review. Professional Development in Education, 46(4), 541–562. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19415257.2020.1787209
Skrla, L., McKenzie, K. B., & Scheurich, J. J. (2009). Equity audits: A practical leadership tool for developing equitable and excellent schools. In C. Marshall & O. Maricela (Eds.), Leadership for social justice: Making revolutions in education (2nd ed.), pp. 259–283. Pearson.
Skrla, L., Scheurich, J. J., Garcia, J, & Nolly, G. (2004). Equity audits: a practical leadership tool for developing equitable and excellent schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 40(1), 133–161. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013161X03259148
Jana Hunzicker, EdD, is a professor in the Department of Education, Counseling, and Leadership and associate dean for the College of Education and Health Sciences at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois.