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New research emerging from a recent project led by the National Association of System Heads provides some useful insights into how, even during the enormous challenges of this pandemic moment, we can assure both equity and quality as we seek to grow the number of people with learning beyond high school.

In their report, “High-Impact Practices and Gains in Student Learning,” researchers Derek Price, Jesse Valentine, and Haisheng Yang examined the impact of several years of work on scaling more equitable access to high-impact educational practices in fifteen institutions in three large public systems in Georgia, Wisconsin, and Montana. (A forthcoming report will also provide insights from a fourth system—the Tennessee community college system—that also participated in the project.)

Many educators have been working to implement and track the quality, equity, and overall impact of a variety of educational approaches that have come to be called “high-impact” based on a building body of evidence. While varied in design, all these practices—when implemented well—increase students’ engagement with their faculty and peers, and with substantive societal and workplace problem-solving. Price and Valentine’s research affirms earlier studies and draws out some intriguing and important new insights.

These educational approaches, known as “high-impact educational practices,” have gained attention over the last decade and include such things as first-year seminars, learning communities, undergraduate and community-based research, study abroad, internships, and various forms of service learning.

Price and Valentine show that reported learning gains from these practices are large and significant for all students, including students over the age of 25 and for Black, Hispanic, and Native American students. However, practices that are “community-based” rather than exclusively campus- or classroom-based have a significantly larger impact on academic and practice learning gains. In particular, service learning with a community-based project conferred the largest boost in learning gains. This was particularly true for Hispanic and Black students.

The new report is part of a growing body of research that can help guide educators as they attend to the urgent task of expanding equitable access to quality in college programs. This is critical if we are to assure that all students graduate with the practical, academic, and social skills they need both to succeed in a changing economy and help rebuild our democracy.

Lumina Foundation’s Quality Credentials Task Force made this point forcefully in its 2019 report, “Unlocking the Nation’s Potential.” Its findings and recommendations remain salient as the academy is confronted with a reckoning with racial injustice, the fallout from a devastating health crisis, and its related and severe economic downturn.

Among many dimensions of quality that the Task Force addressed was the need for more intentional curricular designs that lead to achievement of core competencies essential for work and democratic engagement. They recommended that institutions expand and track more equitable participation in high-impact educational practices.

Our current moment of national crisis presents the pressing challenge of ensuring that more students are able to attain credentials beyond high school. Assuring that those credentials are high quality is also essential if we are to meet society’s urgent need for educated citizens and workers who can solve complex societal and workplace problems. It is encouraging to see the scaling of promising approaches to address this need.

This scaling and tracking of impact also will be important as we continue to face societal skepticism about the value of college programs. Part of that skepticism may come from a lack of alignment between the design of program pathways and the learning today’s students need and the commitments they have. Many of the community-based learning approaches highlighted in this project and report are well aligned with the goal of building students’ essential skills while also serving the interests of a generation of students eager to address societal injustices in their communities.

As we work to meet the challenge of serving today’s students better and face up to the academy’s shortfalls in providing equitable access to quality learning experiences and supporting students to earn valuable credentials, we would be wise to pay attention to these trends and the impressive impact when educators work together to design for equitable impact as they build the next generation of engaged learning approaches.

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