Equity Audits in Higher Education Part Three: Conducting Equity Audits in College and University Settings
Bombardieri (2019) observed, “College officials cannot close achievement gaps that they don’t know exist. They need encouragement, support, and even public pressure to take a clear-eyed look at their own shortcomings” (para. 10). Equity audits have been part of the P–12 education landscape for many years, but they are still relatively new to higher education. Part two of this series described how equity audits can be used to develop equity-minded educational leaders. This article, the final part of the series, provides a step-by-step process for conducting equity audits in college and university settings.
Equity audit process
As explained in part one of the series, equity audits are internal reviews of educational policies and practices to identify and address disparities among student groups. The purpose of an equity audit is to ensure that all students have equitable access and opportunities to learning and learning-related activities. Equity audits also can be used to identify inequities among faculty and staff. The process of conducting an equity audit generally requires an individual or group to collect data, share and discuss the findings with others, identify and analyze equities and inequities, and take action to remediate inequities.
In preparation for collecting data, you will need to select a parameter, or specific area of focus, such as number of courses dropped. Next,identify specific groups for comparison, such as first-generation first-year students and all first-year students. If you wish to compare more than two groups—or more than two parameters—consider conducting multiple equity audits. This way, your data collection and analysis will remain uncomplicated.
Some data sources, such as your own gradebook, attendance records, or advising notes, are a good place to begin. Other data, such as demographic information, are available in public records such as the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System or on your college or university’s website. Access to some data, such as family income levels, may require special permission. If you have difficulty gaining access to a particular data set, consider selecting a different parameter or auditing a smaller, more accessible sample, such as one college, school, or major.
Sharing and discussing the findings
Once you have gathered the data, use Microsoft Excel to create a graph to visually display your findings. The focus of your graph should be on your specific parameter and the groups that you are comparing. While your personal interpretation of the findings is important, it is equally important to invite multiple perspectives. Two initial questions for discussion are (1) What do the findings show? and (2) What equities and inequities do we see? If inequities are discovered, two more questions are needed: (3) What causes these inequities? and (4) How can we remediate them?
When interpreting the findings, there are several factors to consider. First, an equity audit is a screening; there may or may not be an inequity. Second, due to differing viewpoints or interpretations, the findings may be controversial. Especially if the equity audit reveals a disparity, uncomfortable reactions, such as embarrassment, defensiveness, or anger, could result. Third, when reporting the findings of an equity audit, it is wise to maintain strict confidentiality of individuals, units, and even the entire institution if you plan to share the findings beyond your college or university.
Identifying and analyzing equities and inequities
The third step of an equity audit, identifying and analyzing equities and inequities, is embedded within the sharing and discussion stage. Because identifying disparities is the central purpose of an equity audit, it warrants special attention here. Let’s take an interactive look at three different examples.
Example 1: Rank of full professor. At one university, the provost tallied the number of male and female faculty members who held the rank of full professor. A pie graph was created to represent the percentages of male and female full professors across the university (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Percentage of male and female full professors university-wide
Right away, we can see that approximately three times as many male faculty members hold the rank of full professor compared to female faculty members. Does this mean an inequity exists?
Example 2: D or F at midterm. At a liberal arts college, the Office of Student Services analyzed the number of first-generation college first-years with at least one D or F at midterm compared to all first-year students. The staff created bar graphs to compare the midterm grades of first-generation students with their peers (Figures 2 and 3).
Figure 2. Percentage of first-generation first-year students with a midterm D or F
Figure 3. Percentage of first-generation transfer students with a midterm D or F
Notice that both first-generation first-year students and first-generation transfer students are more likely to have a grade of D or F at midterm than their peers. We also can see that the tendency to have a D or F at midterm is greater for first-generation first-year students than for first-generation transfer students. What could be causing these differences?
Example 3: Math placement scores. At a community college, two faculty members compared the math placement scores of low-income students to the scores of middle- and upper-income students. They created a line graph to compare the three groups of students (Figure 4).
Figure 4. Average math placement score by student income level
Clearly, middle income students’ scores are lower than the averages of the other two groups. The question is, Why?
Bleyaert (2011) asserted that collaborative reflection, questioning, and discussion are the most important parts of an equity audit because these interactions lead to taking action. Again, let’s turn to our three examples to see what taking action looks like in higher education. At the university, the ratio of male to female faculty members holding the rank of full professor seems to indicate an inequity, so sharing and discussing the findings with key individuals and gathering additional data are critical next steps. In this example, the equity audit may raise awareness or prompt new conversations about gender inequity that previously went uninvestigated.
At the liberal arts college, both first-generation freshmen and first-generation transfer students are more likely to have a grade of D or F at midterm compared to their peers, again indicating an inequity—or at least an imbalance—that warrants sharing and further discussion. In this example, the equity audit findings may lead to interventions such as increased academic support for first-generation students.
At the community college, a disparity in math placement scores may or may not exist. More information is needed to fully understand the differences among the three student groups. In this example, it might be useful to analyze trend data in math placement scores over the past several years to see whether middle-income students consistently score lower, or to conduct an item analysis of the math placement test questions to identify specific areas of knowledge or skill deficiency. In all three examples, higher education faculty, staff, or administrators initiated simple investigations to screen for disparities among different groups of people. In all three examples, the equity audit provided valuable information, even when inequities were not discovered.
In recent years, scholars have called for greater accountability and transparency in higher education to ensure equitable access and opportunity for students, faculty, and staff; however, calls and critique alone are not enough. This article provided a step-by-step process for conducting equity audits in college and university settings. To be sure, equity audits are not just for P–12 education anymore. As the examples above illustrate, equity audits are a valuable tool for identifying and addressing inequities in today’s colleges and universities.
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
The following resources provide equity audit frameworks that others can use or adapt:
Center for Urban Education. (n.d.). Equity Scorecard. https://cue.usc.edu/tools/the-equity-scorecard
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
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
Groenke, S. L. (2010). Seeing, inquiring, witnessing: Using the equity audit in practitioner inquiry to rethink inequity in public schools. English Education, 43(1), 83–96.
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.