Leigh Parise: Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? Welcome to Evidence First, a podcast from MDRC that explores the best evidence available on what works to improve the lives of people with low incomes. I’m your host, Leigh Parise.
A college degree is an important pathway to economic mobility for millions of Americans. While the percentage of adults with a postsecondary degree has increased over the past several decades, there are large gaps in degree attainment by race, ethnicity, and income. Students of color and students with low incomes disproportionately face barriers to completing college. These barriers, including limited financial support and lack of access to quality college preparation in K-12 education are caused by longstanding structural and systemic inequities.
In this episode, I talk with two higher education policy and research experts about the importance of equitable college completion: Amanda Janice Roberson of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, or IHEP, and Jinann Bitar of the Education Trust. We talk about principles for equitable policymaking, concrete steps that policymakers, researchers, and practitioners can take to address inequities in higher education, and how the new federal College Completion Fund is an example of a policy that is designed to do just that. First, here’s my conversation with IHEP’s Amanda Janice Roberson.
Amanda, thank you so much for joining me. It's really great to have you here today.
Amanda Roberson: It's really great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Leigh Parise: So, why don't we start by having you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about IHEP.
Amanda Roberson: Absolutely. My name is Amanda Janice Roberson. I am the Director of Research and Policy at the Institute for higher education policy or IHEP. IHEP is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research, policy and advocacy organization committed to promoting full secondary access and success for all students, regardless of race, background, and circumstance. We believe that higher ed is a way to a better living and a better life, and we want that pathway to be open to anyone and everyone who wants to take it. And so when you think about IHEP, we want you to remember three things: we are student-centered, data informed, and equity-focused.
Leigh Parise: So you talk, Amanda, about the importance of both equitable access – so, making sure that people are getting in the door equitably, but also equitable completion. I'd love to hear you say a little bit about how do you think about racial equity? And why that is important in higher education?
Amanda Roberson: I really appreciate that we are covering this question because I think it's a really important one. In part, I think, because of the debate and even anger that exists around equity and racial equity right now, unfortunately, and I think that really comes from a basic misunderstanding of what equity means. So, I want to take a step back just because this is an issue and concern that is inclusive of higher ed, but also outside of higher ed. So, I think, having an understanding of the history of higher ed in the context of recent events, will help sort of frame how we consider racial equity. And so, I think, when you look back at who originally attended institutions of higher ed in this country, it was wealthy and white men, and that's a fact. Women and people of color were excluded from higher education for centuries. And again, that's a fact. And denying admission means denying access to all of those economic and non-economic benefits that we know higher education provides and it's not just denying it to those individuals, but also their families and their communities, and that was for generations. And, I think, that in more recent years the Covid pandemic really highlighted it. And it deepened some of those gaps that existed along racial and socio-economic lines.
And this is compounded by the fact that black and brown communities have been the hardest hit by the health impacts and the resulting economic downturn. And again, that's a fact. And so and even alongside all of this we also have seen an increased number of hate crimes among members of the Asian American native wide of the Pacific Islander Community, and they've reached their highest levels in decades. And so with all of that sort of in the background, I want us to think about a picture, and I have a specific one in mind that I can share. I want you to imagine four people. One uses a wheelchair, one is six, eight, one is five, seven, and one is a child, not even three foot tall yet. And, so, if you picture them all together, and we want to go on a bike ride, so we give them all a bike to ride. But that bicycle is the same bicycle, the bicycle for everyone, and so it fits perfectly for the woman who's five feet seven inches. But do you think it's going to fit the other three?
Yeah, of course not. But that's equality. They all get the same bicycle. They're all getting that same inequitable investment. But not taking into consideration their background or circumstances. Equity, on the other hand, really ensures that each of the people has access to the bicycle that fits them. So, the person in a wheelchair, for example, may use a recumbent hand cycle, while the six feet eight inches person needs a bike with a bigger frame, and the child needs a smaller frame. And this metaphorical bicycle fits each of these people, so that they can use their own power to get to where they want to go. Matching resources to individual needs is equity. And I think with this vision.
It's really easy to see the physical differences that the bike addresses, but we also know that there are differences that aren't always as visible, but that doesn't make them less real. There are differences in the quality of K-12, in finances and wealth, in familiarity with the system of higher ed. It can be hard to navigate. And that's just a few examples. And we really see as a country that we're facing a moral and ethical and social and economic imperative to address and confront racial inequity, because these inequities hurt all of us, and a fair, inclusive, just system that serves all students would ensure that everyone who is interested in attending higher ed has access to those non-economic and economic benefits that higher ed can provide.
I want to really double down on this idea that racial equity is a just a nice idea. But there's really hard data to back up that an equitable higher ed system can benefit everyone. So, work from the Georgetown University Center on Education in the Workforce showed that we could see annual public benefits of nine hundred and fifty-six billion dollars. Billion with a B. If we close racial and socioeconomic gaps in higher ed attainment - and so we're leaving all of that money on the table. Society is leaving that money on the table by failing to serve all students. There is value in pursuing equitable post-secondary education systems and for us to have this shared strong future. It's in our best interest to work together to get there. So that's what we think about when we think about racial equity, and why it's so important to consider both within the higher education context, but also society.
Leigh Parise: All right. So, I want to shift a little bit to talk about the specifics of policy here a little bit. So, talk to us about what equitable policy making actually means for higher education policy - what is it? What does it really mean to have policies that make sure that people have access to the bike that fits them if you will?
Amanda Roberson: Yeah, that's a great question and we think a lot about equitable policies themselves. But I think what is forgotten sometimes is the process that we take to get to those equitable policies, and that equitable policy making process is as important in and outside of higher ed to ensuring that the outcomes of the policy are equitable. So, in short, equitable policy, it really means that both those processes to develop a policy, and then the goals may impact both centrally, and so that looks at and requires recognizing all of these systemic barriers to equitable access, location, and value and specifically for Black, Latinx, Indigenous and underrepresented Asian-American Pacific Island students from low-income backgrounds. And then making sure that the one policy seeks to dismantle those barriers. So, it's the process and the resulting policy. And I think we've focused on the resulting policy a lot, but we need to pay closer attention to the process that we take to get there.
Leigh Parise: So, what are some of the principles of equitable policy making? Then what actually prompted the creation of a set of principles that can help guide people?
Amanda Roberson: Yeah. Happy to talk about the principles. We recognized that there was this gap in attention to the policy making process, and so we brought together an advisory committee to help us think through what some key principles could be to help guide the Department of Education, specifically. But other federal agencies as well. And so we designed five interrelated principles that promote sustainable, impactful, just policy decisions to advance racial equity and secondary education. And so we named the framework and it is really a nod to some of the words that President Biden spoke in two thousand and twenty-one when he signed the Executive Order on Racial Equity. He said, “We need to open the promise of America to every American,” and so our framework is opening that promise.
We know that higher ed is really central to America's promise. But that's only really the case if that pathway is open to and supportive of everyone regardless of race, background, and circumstance. And so, just quickly, the five principles that we outlined in the report are that - one, an issue’s framing shapes the creation of the relevant policy; two, the investment signal’s priorities; three, who participates in policy making shapes the outcome; four, data and empirical evidence are really essential to effective policy; and then, five, language must be precise, inclusive, people-first and respectful. I recognize that these may sound simple, pretty straight forward thinking about framing investments, participation, data, and language. But we know that inclusive and deliberate policy making processes require intentionality and assessment and review in every aspect of every policy making process, whether it's the creation of new policy or amending existing policy. And that that really helps set the priorities and set a course of action for whatever that policy making body is.
And, so, putting it simply, we know that, following these principles really at every step, and the fact that they're so straightforward, I think, makes it easy to take a step back and review. But following these principles will yield the equitable policies that we want to see, to be able to form that more equitable and just system.
Leigh Parise: Thank you. I feel like I would love to dive in and get to explore in depth each of those five that you talked about. But I think the one that I would really love to hear a little bit more about is the first one that you talked about how issues framing shapes the creation of the relevant policy. Say a little bit more about why IHEP really talks about the framing being so important.
Amanda Roberson: Yeah, absolutely. We set framing as the first principle, in part, because it sets the stage for both the creation and consumption of the policy and the intentions of the policy.
Right now, framing and policy making is often implicit, assumed. But to further equity, we have to be explicit about our goals. If equity is a part of the framing of the issue throughout the policy making process, then we can't be sure that equity is going to be part of the result either. And so, when we think about framing, we think about choices, concepts, perspectives, and historical context, both visible and invisible, conscious and unconscious, that influence how people can see, perceive, and understand an issue and advancing equity and explicitly racial equity. Given that historical context that we talked about at the start, it really requires being explicit about the inequities, and about identifying those root or historical causes of that injustice that the policy or program wants to solve.
And, I think, just to put it very simply, we can't work in service of a problem that we're not willing to clearly state. We have to be explicit. And so the framing should really include the why of the work, and then the what of the problem. So “why” should capture the goal of furthering equity through the policy and then the “what” of the problem has to be explicit - talking about the structural injustices that the policy is trying to combat. And then the understanding of the cumulative disadvantages and advantages and compounding impact of intersectional identities is also really important. So, framing it should apply the equity lens to the outcomes also for seemingly race-neutral problems, given that some of the historical influences may not be super visible. Policymakers have to apply this equity lens throughout the process to think about the way that the proposed rules or outcomes will impact all student populations.
Even if you don't think the problem has a racial lens, it does. And you should look at it that way. And these impact assessments have to include marginalized and non-marginalized populations alike, to really understand the full implications of the policy, prepare for counter arguments for folks who maybe don't see it through those lenses, and make sure that the result is a more fair and inclusive and just postsecondary system.
And the last thing that I'll say is that framing is really important to reach people's hearts and minds. We have to come out at it, and in both and through both angles, the Ethos and the Logos. You've got to come at it from both directions, because an issue can only be addressed if the stakeholders are feeling both a desire to do so. There's a moral and emotional imperative but it also, if it makes logical sense, because that's when you're going to be able to get at some of those counter arguments as well.
And so we find that to reach hearts and minds, it sort of leans to our principal number four around data that to reach hearts and minds that framing requires qualitative and quantitative approaches to really get at the why and what personal stories should be included to the policy making process alongside data that capture the extent of such experiences and help folks think about the structural obstacles, that essentially these policies and programs are trying to solve for, figure out those structural obstacles that make the experiences worse, and that exacerbate, inevitable outcomes.
Leigh Parise: Thank you. So, I really appreciate your explanation. I think, in part, because you know, you started by saying - maybe they seem simple, maybe they seem straightforward, but just as you talk through it, it really it makes so much sense. But, also, I think there are many components to what you just talked about that are easy for people to ignore or that people don't focus on or either they focus too much on. Well, we're just going to make sure we tell the stories and not have the data to back it up, or we're just going to have the data, but not actually give people the stories that are really going to contextualize it and bring it to life and help people connect to it and relate to it.
Okay. Let's get to a concrete example for people who are listening. What would you point to as an example of a higher education policy or a higher education initiative that you think addresses racial equity and what is it about it that makes it or made it effective?
Amanda Roberson: That's a great question. I think there are a variety of countless examples of ways that we can further racial equity, including making college more affordable. But I really want to focus today, given our conversations around college completion, I want to talk about policy related to funding and funding specifically for institutions.
So, I think, for our colleges and universities to actually remove barriers to college completion for students, target equity-focused interventions and provide student centered supports. The funding that they have needs to be sustainable and, put very simply, I think, investment in institutions that disproportionately serve students of color will go a long way toward racial equity.
The College Completion Fund, which is now called the Post-Secondary Student Success Grants, I think, is a really great opportunity for the Federal Government to make a critical investment in an equitable future for our postsecondary system. It's an opportunity to include and support the students who were historically excluded from higher ed, and it's really, I think, a great example of the kind of investments in capacity, thinking about human, financial, technological capacities to dismantle some of the problems that have been in place for centuries and help toward building that fair, just inclusive future.
And so, when we think about creating this fund, one of the things that we're advocating for with lawmakers is to plan for that long-term, sustainable systemic change, and we're not just tinkering at the margins. It's in order to address the results of centuries of cumulative disadvantages and advantages, you have to take this longer-term systemic fix. It requires continuous assessment, adjustment, and reassessment. And this cycle has to be integrated into the policy making strategies with an understanding that change happens over time and requires more ongoing adjustments to get to that impact.
I think, as advocates, we are going to continue to push this long-term sustainable systemic change. And I think this initial investment is a start, a true commitment would help institutions, particularly those who disproportionately serve students of colors, students from low-income backgrounds.
It would help them weather fiscal storms, and I think Covid has really shown how challenging those storms can be for higher ed, and I think the impact of Covid. It isn't done yet in higher ed and in order to better support those institutions that are serving students, we need to think about what an impactful and true commitment looks like, because equity can't be a fair weather consideration in higher ed, and we know that it’s institutions who can least weather those storms.
They've got the least amount of cushion to weather them and they are often the hardest hit. And so that's where we really see an opportunity here, because we know that failing to invest in these sorts of equitable post-secondary policies and programs can cost society more than the price of the investment.
So we really need to be thinking about what those societal benefits are when we are able to propel students to completion, and to be able to see that better living in better life. So we see this as sort of a once in a generation opportunity to promote completion in a thoughtful and innovative and comprehensive way, and address longstanding inequities, and we really hope that both policymakers recognize how important of an opportunity this is and how important this completion fund is and make those long-term impactful investments now.
Leigh Parise: Thank you so much, Amanda. To wrap us up, I would love for you to say a little bit about what you think is really the first step for centering racial equity and policy making and help our audience think a little bit about the kinds of things that they might be able to start doing over the next six months to really advance this work in as tangible a way as possible.
Amanda Roberson: Yeah, absolutely. I think the first step is really making a clear and explicit commitment to equity centered policy, making both on the creation side and also on the impact. And I think these five principles that we've put out into the world are a really great jumping off way to start thinking about the ways that racial equity can be better centered in policy and in the process.
So, as someone who is very passionate about evidence-based policy making and data, I think a great jumping off point is principal number four. That data and empirical evidence are essential to effective policy and this is because we know when individuals are invisible in the data, then they're also invisible in policy conversations. When we don't disaggregate data, it perpetuates that invisibility in those data collections, and I think a really great example of this is in Asian-American, Native, Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander data.
So right now, the Department of Education and many institutions of higher ed are rendering groups invisible in their data collections because they use these larger umbrella categories of Asian or native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander. But there's another and great approach on the table already that's already in use by the Federal Government – by the US Census Bureau. And given that the AANHPI community is among the fastest growing population in the US. It grew from two thousand and ten to two thousand and eighteen by twenty-eight percent. And the native Pacific Islander population grew by nineteen percent, and that's compared to a six percent growth for the total US population.
So they're a growing group, and, I think, failing to account for and rendering invisible in our data the linguistic, cultural, and historical difference in differences that tend to influence education outcomes and opportunities only further masks the inequities that we see currently and threatens the efforts to provide targeted student supports. And so the aggregation that we're seeing in the Department of Education really is in contrast to the US Census Bureau, which reports data on twenty-five distinct, self-identified groups. And so we put out a report in 2020 that everyone deserves to be seen, which we offered with the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, and it outlines some considerations for policymakers at a variety of levels to better consider the ways that they are approaching their data and disaggregation specifically for the AANHPI community. The hope being that they can make evidence-based decisions that better support those students when they have this disaggregated data.
And so breaking down data by race, age, income, enrollment, status, language, or other important demographic factors to your community allows for better contextualization of analysis and findings. I think my big takeaway is disaggregate, disaggregate, disaggregate. And that is a great entrance into really thinking about equity throughout the process and then the resulting policy.
Leigh Parise: Great. Thank you so much, Amanda. It's going to be a new song, you know it's just so catchy. Thank you so much for joining me today. It was really great to get your insights into have this conversation. Thank you.
Amanda Roberson: Thank you so much for having me. This is a wonderful experience.
Leigh Parise: I also spoke with Jinann Bitar of the Education Trust. MDRC and The Education Trust are partners (along with the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (or SHEEO) and The Institution for College Access and Success (or TICAS) on the College Completion Fund Project and the College Completion Strategy Guide, which offers guidance and resources to policymakers and practitioners seeking to implement evidence-based strategies to advance equitable outcomes for college students. Here’s that conversation now.
All right, Jinann, thank you so much for joining me. I'm really excited to have this conversation.
Jinann Bitar: Thank you, Leigh. Happy to be here today.
Leigh Parise: So why don’t you start by introducing yourself.
Jinann Bitar: Yeah, my name's Jinann Bitar and I serve as the director of higher education research and data analytics for The Education Trust. And we are a national nonprofit that works to close education gaps through advocacy, direct action, research and community engagement. And we're fierce advocates for high achievement of all students, but particularly for students of color and low-income students. So we really focus on P-12 and postsecondary education policy and practice.
Leigh Parise: Great. Thank you. I know MDRC has long enjoyed being able to work together and following your work for many years. So, given that we are here today to talk about college completion, I'm going to ask you what might feel like a really basic question, but is so important. I want to hear from you from how you think about it and how Ed Trust thinks about it, but why is increasing college completion so important?
Jinann Bitar: Well, first of all, high school graduation rates have improved steadily throughout the country over recent decades. College completion rates really haven't kept pace and there's large racial gaps in degree attainment and these continue to persist through time. So students from low income backgrounds, students of color, first gen students, they all face greater barriers to earning a degree or accessing high quality jobs that we would associate with mobility of college graduates. So really the most important piece is college graduation is where we statistically get that biggest boost in earnings over time.
Leigh Parise: So I want to shift us to talk a little bit about the topic of racial equity. How do you think or talk about racial equity and why it's important in higher education?
Jinann Bitar: Well, racial equity definitely means different things to different people, but I think Ed Trust really sees it as the ability to close gaps in access and that includes in affordability and it's success for all students, but specifically students of color and low income students. And when we talk about success, we're really thinking about those outcomes like completion and whether, particularly in the post secondary world, what kind of earnings or jobs folks have access to at completion.
But thinking a little bit more about how I see it, I recently got to watch the clips of the Global Citizen NOW Summit and there was Eddie Ndopu and he talked about the difference between access and entry. And so he said, "What makes a space accessible isn't a ramp, a ramp provides entry. Great. But similarly, what makes a campus accessible isn't admission, admission simply provides entry." So he says, "What makes this space accessible is how all of us, regardless of ability, regardless of identity, are able to come together and feel validated and have accessed agency, self-actualization, really feel dignified. And so we won't get to intersectionality through compliance or through checking a box, but by celebrating multiplicity, celebrating shared humanity."
And so I think about this in the context of higher ed. We won't get to equity through compliance and through checking boxes, but by creating systems that respond to this human diversity. And these are high touch, high flex systems that allow today's students to feel validated, have access to agency, self-actualization. And if you ask students today, what this looks like, it looks like affordable options, whether it be a traditional four year, community college, vocational school or a credential. And they want support to complete and opportunities for a living wage job leads to living and dignity.
And so I think how has this landscape shift? Well, to be honest, equity matters now. So for all the reasons we've discussed, but very specifically for economic growth, a robust workforce and global competitiveness. We may have always known that these are ideals we want to uphold, but they've now actually become requirements to be competitive on the global market.
Leigh Parise: Great. And can you say a little bit, some specific examples, about how you think that's playing out?
Jinann Bitar: I think there's a couple ways. First, what role does considering or not considering racial equity and policy making result in? I think a really good example would be for a long time when we were designing and thinking about the student loan program, lots of people thinking about it these days, we've focused on totals and averages and aggregate data instead of trying to make truly data informed decisions. So not considering differences in household wealth, access to resources, the real systematics racism and discriminations folks will face in the workforce. This led significantly to disproportionate burden on black, brown and low income borrowers. So it really suggests that we have to disaggregate the data so we can design targeted interventions.
Leigh Parise: It's really helpful to hear you talk through all of that. And now I want to ask, can you talk a little bit about what role does data and research play in advancing racial equity?
Jinann Bitar: Well, I can think of a couple ways it really plays a role and one is specifically finding solutions for small sample sizes. For a really long time, if there are groups of folks, whether it's by race or ethnicity or by institution type that have really small numbers, we often don't actually use their data to analyze or research their outcomes. And so what this leads to is a large dearth of information on completion strategies that might work for those students in those institutions. And so it's really important to both find evidence in different ways and member check. So can we aggregate data up in ways we don't in other instances to glean insights for these students or institutions? Can we actually use different forms of evidence?
I also got to do a session recently with Virginia Garcia, she's one of the city auditors in the city of Seattle and she trains public managers on equity audits. And she talked a lot about the different types of evidence that you can actually collect, particularly from when you're doing policy making from your constituents. So those are a couple ways that's really important. So first, how do we find solutions for populations that don't have large numbers of folks to research? And then second, how do we make sure we're using all forms of evidence available at our disposal?
Leigh Parise: And what do you think are some of the best ways that policy makers can be using this evidence then to advance racial equity?
Jinann Bitar: I think it's really good when we do think of it as more of an audit. And then we start just asking questions. So how do we use data? Well, when we ask questions, the answers often come in the form of data. So you might think of first in the realm of college or post sec education, achievement equity. So state leaders might want to ask where are the schools in your states that enroll and graduate the largest number of low income students? And might want to ask which schools are losing the most students before completion, i.e. the lowest retention rates? Which schools have less than average median debt or higher than average median salaries in your state? Those answers are data and they can help tell a story, but it'll likely need your folks on the ground to help give it context.
You can think about resource equity or program equity. Which schools have STEM degrees or are highly selective campuses? Or which programs at a school are overrepresented or underrepresented in loan defaults? And then you can also think about things like which sectors or areas have the most schools that are closing or are there schools that have really high social mobility? So asking these questions and taking a look at your school and your students outcomes, even if it's just the federal public data, can be really helpful to start talking about what may be going on in your state, your region, your campus.
Leigh Parise: Great. So there's one follow-up I want to ask about that. So you said you could think of it really sort of as an audit. I'm sorry IRS, but an audit is sometimes a word that makes people feel a little bit nervous. What advice do you have that might make that sound less intimidating?
Jinann Bitar: Less daunting?
Leigh Parise: Yeah. Is there a narrative or a story that you might tell to help make people feel motivated to do that or comfortable with it? What's your advice there?
Jinann Bitar: Well, I think at the heart of it all, whether it's research, it's an evaluation, it's an audit, it's actually just answering questions of interest. So if you just think of it, "Are there two or three questions you and other folks have been asking for a while and that by investigating some relatively easily available data you might get some insights?" It really is that simple. It doesn't have to be large scale quantitative statistical analysis. You can get data from a couple districts, a couple schools or a state office, put it in Excel sheet, highlight it by color and it actually can be pretty effective.
Leigh Parise: That's great. I like that framing of thinking about the questions that you've been asking for a while. There's probably data out there that you can collect or dig into in a little bit more detail that are going to help get some interesting insights for those questions. So, thank you.
Jinann Bitar: Yeah.
Leigh Parise: What are the other things that we have not talked about that you feel like are important to make sure we include? What are the other follow-ups or things that you feel like maybe we passed over a little bit too quickly that you would want us to dig into a little bit more?
Jinann Bitar: As a data person, I get asked a lot about disaggregation and I think you can hear me and other advocates talk a lot about the need to disaggregate the data within the reporting, particularly race, ethnicity, gender, income, income brackets. But what we also often forget is actually that we need research to expand on the diversity of institutions available. So we also have to ensure our evidence base is available for all types of schools and all types of communities.
And what I mean by that is predominantly right now, our research focuses on private, public four year colleges, masters comprehensive in some community college systems. But we have a real dearth of information around two year credentials or special institution types like MSI's, particularly TCU's. And while it's really important to disaggregate the data that we are collecting, we have to think about also are we collecting the full universe of institutional data we should be? So I think that's really important when we think about evidence because it's actually some of those populations that need the evidence the most to become competitive for these federal funding opportunities that have been coming up for college completion.
Leigh Parise: Thanks again to Amanda and Jinann for joining me. If you’re interested in learning more about the College Completion Fund Project and the College Completion Strategy Guide, visit mdrc dot org, or send an email to completion fund project at mdrc dot org. Did you enjoy this episode? Subscribe to the Evidence First podcast for more.