When it comes to disparities in outcomes for community college students of diverse races, ethnic and class backgrounds, higher education leaders are aware of the dismal national data and statistics. In today’s society, student access and success data can be compiled at all levels. However, most of the data do not examine or recognize systemic inequities.
Traditionally, equity audits were used in K-12 school districts to address inequality and served as a benchmarking tool to identify disparities that existed in educational structures. A few community colleges are now using equity audits to examine their campus climate, culture, data trends, policies and procedures. Community college leaders who have conducted audits have indicated that uncovering equity gaps is the first step in learning how best to address them.
Below, a few colleges share their experiences in developing their equity audits.
The approach of three colleges
Sinclair College in Ohio decided in 2016 to conduct an audit to measure the college’s transparency and credibility as it developed a new strategic plan to incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) throughout the campus, according to Michael Carter, the college’s chief diversity officer. The audit process was new to the campus, but after several high-level strategic cabinet meetings, it was determined what the audit should include, he said.
Hudson County Community College (HCCC) in New Jersey began conducting a full-scale equity audit in 2019 in an effort to examine if the college’s work addressed a commitment to equity, according to its president, Christopher Reber. He says the goal of the audit was to collect honest and open information from the campus community, employees, students and trustees. As a result of the audit, the college started steps to implement its first DEI action plan.
Portland Community College (PCC) in Oregon is at the initial stages of its audit, says Tricia Brand, PCC’s chief diversity officer. The college aims to design an equity mapping tool that focuses on the following areas:
- Student success
- Planning, policies and procedures
- Culturally responsive pedagogy
- Student support services
- Employee hiring and human resources
- Leadership training and professional development
- Student retention and enrollment
An equity audit examines all the things that a college says that they are, according to Brand. It should help answer: “Are we really walking the talk?”
Working through the process
Each college hired an outside consultant to help develop the audit and to demonstrate how it would help the institution achieve equitable outcomes for all students, faculty and staff. Community colleges must take their time to ensure that their constituents, community and institution are fully committed to the process, says Yeurys Pujols, HCCC’s vice president for DEI. The process must be guided from the ground up with 100% commitment to a DEI platform based on collective institutional values.
At Sinclair, it took several meetings for his team to define and determine what the audit would look like for the institution, but the focus remained on the needs of the students, faculty and staff, Carter says.
PCC’s Brand adds that it is vital that an institution continues to refine the process and not to become complacent. This is continuous work that needs to be developed and scaled throughout the entire campus environment, she says.
At the national level
There also has been support for equity audits at the national level. In July, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) reintroduced the College Equity Act, a bill that would give colleges and universities funding to address disparities in higher education and to assist colleges in making campuses more welcoming and conducive to historically underrepresented populations.
To accomplish this, the bill recommends that colleges conduct equity audits to review internal policies and practices to identify those that fail to effectively serve underrepresented students – and then provides additional grant opportunities to make improvements based on the audit results.
Many community college leaders have indicated that the cost of an audit can be expensive, due to the time commitment of all that is involved. However, HCCC’s Reber notes that as an institution, budget cannot be a sole barrier. While the audit may be costly, the return on the campus investment will be significant, producing far better results and positive outcomes for the institution. Too often, community colleges lack funding, personnel or a sense of urgency to conduct an audit.
Carter says that as a result of Sinclair’s equity audit, the college has received national and local recognition which documents the institution’s commitment to improving outcomes for underrepresented students and to DEI throughout the campus and community.