Since the spring of 2020, predominantly White institutions (PWIs) of higher education have felt understandable pressure to examine everything we do through an equity lens. Colleges and universities have, for example, turned a spotlight on admissions practices that have disproportionately benefited upper-middle class students. We have also begun to rethink financial aid policies, strengthen wraparound services, and advance collaborations to support community building across campus. Changes to our practices in all these areas are essential to provide a level playing field for all of our students, especially our BIPOC, first-generation, and low-SES students. Many of our campuses have already done the “easy” things: developed learning communities and affinity groups; created orientation and success courses targeted at particular groups of students; developed bridge programs and scholarship opportunities for students from under-resourced high schools; and provided expanded supplemental instruction, tutoring, and academic coaching programs.
Now we need to move on to consider “harder” changes if we expect to push higher education in the United States to become a system that provides opportunities for all and lessens economic disparities among members of our society. We have a responsibility to shift the standard practices at PWIs by working with our faculty to examine the academic policies that undergird our undergraduate curricula. These policies are the basis of the academic culture that lies at the heart of whether all of our students will have an equal opportunity to succeed.
It is a truism that student retention is every campus member’s responsibility. That rhetoric of shared responsibility is what administrators use to persuade faculty members to give formal midterm or “early alert” grades, to ping advisors when students miss classes or fail to submit assignments, or to refer students to tutoring or academic coaching centers. Depending on the campus, faculty have more or less accepted that shared responsibility insofar as it extends outward from their classroom: they have become willing to make reports or referrals according to how students are performing in their courses. I would argue that faculty are less likely to examine the academic policies that govern student achievement within the structures of their individual academic curricula.
What policies am I referring to? All those that fill the small print in our university bulletins and our registrars’ websites. Policies that govern the following:
None of these policies are particularly exciting, but the fine print of these regulations governs our students’ academic progress toward their degrees. Working to review and, where appropriate, revise them is not likely to give anyone a juicy new line on their CV or lead to a meaningful expansion of their administrative portfolio. Nonetheless, these policies—and the practices surrounding their implementation—create the academic culture of a campus and establish either unnecessary hurdles or smoother pathways for students. The way we administer them can dramatically alter our students’ ability to earn their degree. Until we have examined our policies and practices with an eye to their potentially disparate impacts on our students, we can’t be sure that we aren’t inadvertently contributing to graduation equity gaps under the guise of maintaining academic standards.
As an example of the kinds of inquiry and analysis I am advocating, let’s say that a university has a policy that permits students in particular extenuating circumstances to withdraw from a course after the course drop deadline. To request such permission, a student must complete a form documenting the reason for their request, meet with their advisor to discuss it, and then submit the request to an academic committee that reviews and acts upon these requests. If a student is approved for a late drop, a W appears on their transcript in lieu of a course grade. Such a retroactive withdrawal can prevent a student from earning a failing grade in a course. That failing grade could have a number of negative effects, such as losing a scholarship, being placed on academic probation or suspension, and earning too low a GPA to qualify for admission to a major.
There are many points in the implementation of a late drop policy where unconscious bias may affect decisions, and it will be difficult to determine whether biases are present until we examine the data. If roughly equal percentages of students from different demographic backgrounds are receiving Ws, then the policy is probably working appropriately. If, however, there is an imbalance, there is reason to look more deeply. If BIPOC students have a significantly higher failure rate than the White students, but White students also constitute a higher percentage of students being granted permission to withdraw from courses after the official last date of withdrawal, then the policy is probably contributing to academic inequities on campus. In such circumstances, we need to ask a set of questions:
Sifting through the data to try to answer these questions will be time-consuming and require the collaboration of academic leaders, academic advising, and institutional data specialists. It is tedious work, but if we are serious about eliminating academic inequities on our campuses, it is work that must be done. And we need to repeat this process for all of our academic regulations.
It is easier to create change in support services, financial aid policies, admissions practices, and cocurricular activities than to revise academic policies and curricula because none of those areas are controlled by the faculty. They all swirl around the central core of the university: the academic program that is controlled, as it should be, by the faculty. The scholars and researchers who are experts in their academic fields are rightly responsible for establishing the academic courses of study that lead to the awarding of a degree; they set the expectations for academic rigor in their own classrooms and in their disciplines; they have responsibilities to the professions and accreditation bodies that govern their programs.
Faculty practices are understandably slow-moving and deliberative, and professors have many pressures on their time. But faculty need to make the time to turn their research and analytical skills to the examination of the academic policies that govern their students’ progress toward completion of their academic curricula. Faculty have already begun to consider strategies for promoting inclusive pedagogies, revising grading practices, and rethinking curricular complexity. Now academic leaders need to team up with faculty senate officers, registrars, data analysts, compliance officers, and students to study our policies and the committees and procedures that enforce them. The odds are good that at least some of the means by which we implement these policies reinforce inequity.
Constance C. Relihan, PhD, is the dean of University College and a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.