How Making “Evidence-Based Decisions Guided by the Best Available Science and Data” Can Advance Racial Equity in Higher Education

Published Mar 05, 2021

by: Karen Bussey, Jihad D. Dixon

While behind us, 2020 will never fade from our rearview mirror. From the novel COVID-19 pandemic to the longstanding pandemic of systemic racism that has persisted throughout our nation’s history, we continue to see indirect impacts and direct violence toward Black and Brown communities. Seven decades after the Civil Rights Era, we continue to wage the same fight for equity. While the clothes and the technology have changed since then, the call – and need – for racial justice has not.

It is crucial now amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis to dismantle inequities and provide students of color true opportunities for economic mobility. That requires identifying racist policies and practices, and to do that, we need better data.

A directive by the Biden administration recognizes the vital role of data and has the potential to move our postsecondary education system forward to make equity a reality—if it is properly implemented.

On January 20, 2021, President Biden highlighted the need for change through the Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government As one of 17 executive orders signed by President Biden on his first day in the office, EO 13985 requires each agency, including the Department of Education, to assess its programs and policies to determine whether, and to what extent, they perpetuate systemic barriers. The executive order formally articulated the responsibility for the whole of our government to promote racial justice, civil rights, and equal opportunity.

Amidst the broader racial equity focus of the executive order, it would be easy to miss a small but incredibly powerful provision that aims to address the need for better data to identify racial inequities:

“Sec. 9. Establishing an Equitable Data Working Group.  Many Federal datasets are not disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, disability, income, veteran status, or other key demographic variables.  This lack of data has cascading effects and impedes efforts to measure and advance equity.  A first step to promoting equity in Government action is to gather the data necessary to inform that effort.” 

This section is a huge win. Postsecondary data advocates have long called for better data disaggregation. Without data disaggregates, like race and ethnicity, students, institutions, and policymakers may not recognize who is missing from college and which students are not provided the resources necessary to succeed in their path to a college degree or credential. The Equitable Data Working Group can unite data champions and promote a data-driven culture that identifies both problems and solutions that may seem invisible in aggregated data.

Historically, racial inequities have permeated our higher education system and closing racial college enrollment and attainment gaps is at the forefront of postsecondary priorities. In 2021, more than half a century after the first HEA promised an open path to “all with the determination to walk it,” Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and underserved Asian American people are still not proportionally represented in college and university student populations across the country.

The shortcomings of our current postsecondary data systems make it impossible to know the full extent of the inequities today’s students face when it comes to access, affordability, completion, and workforce outcomes and how to improve their educational experiences. While some of our federal data sets disaggregate by race and ethnicity, many still do not. Without disaggregated data, we cannot answer questions like:

  • Do Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and underserved Asian American students who transfer succeed in and after postsecondary education?
  • How do college affordability, student debt, and student loan outcomes vary by race and ethnicity?
  • What do workforce outcomes look like by major and student racial/ethnic demographics?

As institutions and policymakers grapple with significant decisions in the years ahead around equity, diversity, and inclusion, they must commit to intentionally and permanently achieving racial and ethnic equity. To meet that goal, we need better data; policymakers and institutions must know the contours of postsecondary racial gaps if they are to create policies to completely close them.

The commitment to ensuring that everyone, regardless of background, race, or circumstance, has the opportunity to reach their full potential through higher education is not one only for the federal government. All of us across the postsecondary education field must actively seek social justice and equity, including in our data collection and uses. Underrepresented students must be seen and centered in policies and initiatives – and the better data that the Equitable Data Working Group will promote has the potential to ensure precisely that.