What Is Equity in Higher Education?

The U.S. aspires to be a country where all people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, ability, socioeconomic status, or intersectional background have an equal opportunity to succeed. But according to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Social Mobility Index, which compares one generation’s educational and economic level to their parents’, we still have more progress to make toward the goal.

The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. 27th in social mobility, behind countries including Denmark (No. 1), France (No. 12), and Singapore (No. 20). According to the report, most nations, including the U.S., are “failing to provide the conditions in which their citizens can thrive … As a result, an individual’s opportunities in life remain tethered to their socioeconomic status at birth, entrenching historical inequalities.”

Students in a university classroom.

The dream of public education was to elevate the working class, with the idea that universal education could eliminate poverty by preparing students to take on better jobs and move up the social ladder.

But U.S. higher education has never been equitable, and the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that crises disproportionately harm some students more than others.

“Any uncertainty can really rattle you,” says Kim Cook, executive director for the National College Attainment Network, “particularly if you’re the first in your family to go to college.”

According to a Strada Education Network survey, 50% of Latino students and 42% of Black students canceled or altered their educational plans due to the pandemic. Compared to only 26% of non-Hispanic white students, that’s disheartening.

Academic institutions must do more to support students of all backgrounds. But equal treatment in higher education isn’t the same as equitable treatment. While equality means offering every student the same opportunities, equity means offering opportunities that acknowledge and address the disadvantages some students face.

Here’s why equity matters, and how colleges and universities can take steps to improve their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Educational Inequities Lead to Lifelong Disparities

The U.S. Department of Education (DoEd) says that the challenge of guaranteeing educational equity has been “formidable.” A DoEd study found that 45% of K-12 high-poverty schools received less state and local funding than other schools in their district. The result? Low-income students and students from minority backgrounds attend and graduate from college at a lower rate than their peers.

These disparities have a ripple effect later in life. The College Board’s Education Pays 2019 study reports that individuals with higher education levels:

  • Have greater career opportunities
  • Experience better health and life expectancies
  • Have higher levels of civic engagement

How can we address inequity in education?

Equity vs. Equality in Education

Teachers often use a pizza-related thought experiment to explain the difference between equality and equity.

Equity in Higher Education 101: How to Split a Pizza

Imagine a group of classmates ready to tear into a freshly delivered pizza. According to equal distribution, the classmates might split the pie evenly — say, two slices per person.

Is this approach to dividing the pizza fair? Splitting it evenly means that every person receives the same thing. But, is it fairer to pay attention to each classmate’s needs — their hunger, their preference for cheesy crust, and so on?

In an equitable distribution, each person gets pizza according to their need: A hungry student who missed breakfast might get three slices, and a student who ate lunch early might only get one.

That’s the difference between equal and equitable distribution. Equality means everyone gets the same treatment. Equity means giving people what they need based on their starting point.

Working Toward Equity in Education

Equity in education means developing solutions that address the barriers faced by students from marginalized backgrounds — such as lack of academic support, funding, and resources — and consider circumstances like the lack of a social safety net for some students who have to quit their part-time job to attend school full time.

When colleges and universities work toward equity, they can ensure that all students receive the support they need to succeed.

Equity in Higher Education: Why Focusing on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Has Become a Priority

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives improve school environments. They make campuses less homogeneous, which fosters cultural awareness, reduces biases, encourages teamwork, and prepares students to work in a global business landscape. More importantly, DEI programs have crucial benefits for students who need them most:

  • Recognizing marginalized students. DEI programs let students from marginalized communities know that they are seen — that they’re respected, their voices matter, and their college experience, which is probably much different from their friends’ and roommates’, will be taken seriously. This can improve the educational experience for those students, lead to higher satisfaction, and even increase their graduation rates.
  • Representation in leadership. College graduates go on to be leaders in their fields. When more students from historically underrepresented communities pursue higher education, it’s reflected in society. When young people from marginalized groups see people like themselves in political, business, and academic leadership, they can see those goals as possibilities for themselves.
  • Opportunities for mobility. Higher education opens up paths to experiences and careers that students from marginalized communities may not have been exposed to. World-class science labs, university art collections, and semesters abroad are opportunities that socioeconomically marginalized groups are less likely to have access to except in the university setting, and they can help students define their goals and careers on their own terms.
  • Diverse and inclusive faculty lead to better student outcomes. Diversity among faculty members, along with DEI programs that promote diversity and inclusion training among professors, can lead to higher student retention and a positive impact on students from marginalized groups.
  • Creating a safety net. Students from underrepresented backgrounds may have greater economic insecurities. Delays in financial aid or last-minute housing changes are more likely to impede students with no social or financial safety net. DEI programs can help students navigate these challenges and stay in school.

Diversity for Its Own Sake

It’s important to note that DEI is valuable in its own right. Some DEI efforts only emphasize how including students, faculty, and administrators from underrepresented groups can bolster the college learning experience for all. But diversity in higher education shouldn’t be considered valuable only when equity programs improve metrics like student retention, publication records, and grant funding.

Students from all backgrounds matter. Diversity is valuable in and of itself.

Ways Colleges and Universities Can Improve DEI

Colleges and universities can improve educational DEI in a number of ways:

  • Establish DEI committees that involve students, faculty, staff, and campus leaders.
  • Form partnerships with community DEI organizations.
  • Institute leadership positions focused on improving enrollment opportunities for diverse students.
  • Establish scholarships that provide support for disadvantaged students.
  • Allocate emergency financial aid to students in need.
  • Create an early-warning system designed to provide students who are struggling academically with access to additional support.
  • Conduct equity audits to identify gaps in student achievement, degree completion, and access to high-demand majors, such as health science and business administration.
  • Create mentorship programs to provide emotional and social support for disadvantaged students, especially for first-generation college students.

Striving for More Equitable Higher Education

The work to improve DEI in higher education is ongoing. All colleges and universities must do more to address the needs of underserved populations.

Discover how Maryville University’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion strives to support all and learn about our work to help education achieve its equity goals.

Recommended Reading

Diversity in STEM: An Evolving Industry

Notable Women in American Politics: Achievements, Evolution, and Impact

How to Identify and Overcome Your Implicit Bias


Achieving the Dream, “Shortening Academic Terms Used as Strategy to More Equitably Serve Students”

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Equity vs. Equality and Other Racial Justice Definitions

Association for Psychological Science, “New Directions for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Higher Education”

Association of American Colleges and Universities, “Achieving Equity and Excellence at Colleges and Universities with High Graduation Rates: Early Lessons from the American Talent Initiative”

Association of American Colleges and Universities, “Step Up & Lead for Equity”

Aviso Retention, “What Is Equity in Education?”

College Board, “Education Pays 2019: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society”

Center for Education Policy, “History and Evolution of Public Education in the US”

Everfi, “The 3 Most Powerful Benefits of a Diverse Faculty”

Everfi, “The Top 5 Ways That Diversity in Education Benefits Student Success”

Inside Higher Ed, “Higher Education and Work Amid Crisis”

Inside Higher Ed, “How to Stand Up for Equity in Higher Education”

McKinsey & Company, “Achieving an Inclusive US Economic Recovery”

Strada, “Public Viewpoint: COVID-19 Work and Education Survey”

U.S. Department of Education, Equity of Opportunity

World Economic Forum, “Global Social Mobility Index 2020: Why Economies Benefit from Fixing Inequality”

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