Step Four

Ensure that all efforts reflect a commitment to social justice and racial equity


The future of the American workforce is diverse. By midcentury, the majority of Americans will be non-white. Yet education attainment among students who are Black, Hispanic, and Native American continues to lag significantly behind that of other demographic groups. In the 25-64 age group, only 30 percent of Black Americans and 21.9 percent of Hispanics have attained some kind of post-high school credential, compared to 46.4 percent of whites. (The attainment rate for Asians is more than twice that of Black Americans.) The richest white students with below-average test scores finish college at higher rates than the poorest Black students with above-average test scores.

A key goal should be to specifically confront disparities in educational outcomes for students from historically underserved and underrepresented populations, including low-income, immigrant, Black, and Latino students. Knowing that these populations lag others in attainment, communities work strategically and intentionally to close the gaps. Eliminating disparity is not only the right thing to do, it’s the only way to build a labor pool of the size and quality you need.

Understand the term “equity”

Note that equity is not the same as equality. Equality means treating everyone the same. Equity means giving everyone what they need to be successful. Think of three people of different heights straining to look over a fence. Under an equality approach, they would all be given boxes of the same size. Those equal boxes would lift up all the people by the same amount, but the shorter people still wouldn’t be able to see over the fence. Under an equity scenario, the people would be given different-sized boxes; each would be given the size box they needed to see over. The result: All the people have the same opportunity.

Be specific and deliberate

Existing efforts to boost attainment may naturally bring up the achievement of minority groups, even if they are simply giving everyone the same size boxes. But taking an equity approach requires being more deliberate, not leaving these effects to chance. It means defining equity in your community, measuring it, and even dedicating people to take responsibility for it. And it almost always involves having some uncomfortable conversations.

Here is what some of the talent-building communities are doing to ensure equity:

  • In Shasta County, California, which is overwhelmingly white, 3 to 4 percent of the population is Native American, a group that suffers disproportionately from social problems and that has an overall bachelor’s attainment rate of just 20 percent. Shasta County leaders found that before they could even talk about the many possible responses to the problem, they had to have sometimes confrontational conversations aimed at healing resentments and other deep wounds.
  • St. Louis has taken a lead in Missouri in advancing equitable access to and outcomes in higher education: Black students at the University of Missouri-St. Louis had the highest average GPA in the institution’s history, and Southeast Missouri State University had its highest Black retention rate on record. The work inspired the state’s education commissioner to hold a Missouri Equity Summit, a convening that attracted hundreds of higher education and community leaders to discuss diversity from multiple perspectives. At another convening, the Advancing Racial Equity in Higher Education Institute drew in 14 more institutions pledging to hold themselves—and each other—accountable for equity goals. The colleges have committed to transparency, student engagement, sharing of data, and equity-centered policy and practice.
  • Also in St. Louis, the tutoring center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis has created a strong partnership with a Black student group to provide them with study space, tutors, materials, and regular study nights. The center has also extended its office hours during the week before mid-terms, and it’s expanding online tutoring. Tutoring requests by these students have increased by 25 percent, and virtually all of them have been met.

Embrace the concept of “targeted universalism”

Under a universal approach to a problem, policies make no distinctions among different groups to achieve universal goals. By contrast, talent-building communities use targeted strategies to reach a universal goal of attainment. Targeted universal strategies consider the needs of both dominant (usually white) and marginal (often Black and Latino) groups, but they pay particular attention to the marginalized group. So while you want to adopt practices aimed at improving attainment for all, you need to especially attend to how these strategies will affect underserved and underrepresented groups.

Collect disaggregated data, analyze it, and share it

Doing this work at first requires collecting and analyzing data, disaggregated by factors like race and income, then sharing it broadly, regularly, and in a consistent way. Here are some examples:

  • The City of Tulsa, which has a troubled racial history dating back to race riots in the 1920s, publishes yearly “Equality Indicators,” an independent report that grades the city’s treatment of different ethnic and racial groups on factors like public health, education, and housing, and is aimed at holding the city accountable. It’s updated every year so the city can keep track of its progress. The first baseline report presented city leaders with a grim picture: It rated the current equity atmosphere 38.93 out of 100. That number is now up to 41.74, although results in individual categories are mixed.
  • Detroit is building publicly accessible dashboards and producing reports that show progress toward goals. The dashboards, valuable for community engagement, break down data not only by race and income but by education sector, employment status, and previous post-high school credits and experience. The data reinforced the equity implications of Wayne State University’s loan forgiveness programs, since it revealed that even though Black students accounted for just 21 percent of the university’s stop-outs, they made up 45 percent of those with financial holds. This strategy helped Detroit identify debt forgiveness as a key strategy to scale.

Consider designating an equity team

One way to ensure that efforts are being seen through an equity lens is to put specific people in charge of this mission. They work to develop goals, set equity action plans, train community leaders, communicate about equity, and examine existing policies for signs they disproportionately affect certain racial and ethnic groups.

An example: Dayton, Ohio has employed a cadre of “equity fellows,” who are charged with promoting the visibility of underserved students in Montgomery County with the goal of closing achievement gaps. Working in 10 teams of five people, from varying backgrounds, assigned to several schools, they collect and analyze disaggregated data (such as school suspension rates), which they then use for appropriate interventions. The equity fellows also work to reduce chronic absenteeism, increase the number of students completing FAFSA and boost dual enrollment.

Address all marginalized groups

Equity makes us think of Black, white, and Hispanic populations, but it affects many other demographic subgroups, as well, including military veterans, parents, disconnected youth, and individuals caught up in the justice system. Who are the groups in your community who are most under-represented and under-served? Here are some examples:

  • Single women with children. Cincinnati is focusing on single women with children—nearly three quarters of whom are low-income and most of whom have low post-high school attainment. Bringing equity to this group has led to a two-generation approach to attainment that helps both parent and child, stressing financial, physical, and mental health.
  • Former foster youth. Research shows that Shasta County, California, has an unusually high number of these individuals, who nationwide complete programs at exceptionally low rates. So Shasta College and California State College-Chico, working together with social services agencies, gives them a boost with intensive advising and other resources.
  • Rural students. Southwest Florida’s five-county initiative targets 1,000 residents of the Promise Zones in rural counties.
  • Immigrants. Boston and Elkhart County, Indiana are among the many communities reaching out to immigrants. In Elkhart, the Horizon Educational Alliance helps to provide the region’s growing number of Latino residents with language lessons and on-the-job training. Goshen College has embraced its now-25 percent Latino student body, adding courses designed to help Latinos with writing skills and other transitions unique to their population. Boston partners likewise are mindful of the impact the current political climate is having on immigrant students’ academic work and mental health. So Success Boston—a non-profit that coaches students from Boston Public Schools to improve college access and completion—is training coaches and staff on the shifting landscape for immigrant students, particularly undocumented students, and on ways to support them more effectively.
  • Incarcerated individuals, parolees. In Southeast Indiana, a local manufacturer, in collaboration with Ivy Tech Community College and a local non-profit, hires and trains inmates at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Madison, Indiana, virtually guaranteeing them jobs upon their release. In Shasta County, the community college partners with the local sheriff’s office to provide academic, logistical, and limited financial support to addicts and criminal offenders to help them get their degrees. And Corpus Christi, Texas, targets veterans and young mothers.

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