Equity gaps in higher education: Insights into systemic inequalities

February 7, 2024
6 mins
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As college students' demographic makeup becomes increasingly diverse, there is a profound opportunity to enhance equity and inclusion for all students. 

The equity gap in higher education has been discussed for years. This gap is more than just a discrepancy in graduation rates—it's a systemic issue deeply rooted in the educational journey of low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color. 

Despite countless studies highlighting these disparities, the question remains: How can higher education evolve to acknowledge and actively address and close these gaps?

This article seeks to navigate these complex waters, offering a critical examination of the systemic roots of educational disparities and showcasing forward-thinking strategies that promise a more equitable future.


Defining equity gaps in higher education

Equity gaps in higher education refer to disparities in educational outcomes and student success metrics across various demographic groups, such as race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, and physical or mental abilities. 

The term "equity gaps" is preferred over "achievement gap" as it focuses on systemic disparities rather than placing the blame on students. Equity gaps occur for many reasons, but some of the most common are caused by:

Access to resources

One of the most visible forms of equity gaps is in the access to essential educational resources. This includes not just physical resources like books and technology but also intangible assets such as quality teaching and academic advising. 

Students from underprivileged backgrounds often find themselves at a disadvantage due to a lack of these critical resources, which can impede their academic progress and overall college experience.

Opportunities for growth and development

Equity gaps are also evident in the opportunities available to students. Opportunities for growth, such as internships, research projects, and extracurricular activities, are often less accessible to students from marginalized communities

This lack of opportunity limits their ability to gain valuable experience, build networks, and develop skills that are crucial for post-graduate success.

Support systems

Support systems in higher education, including mentoring, counseling, and academic support, are crucial for student success. However, there is an evident disparity in the availability and quality of these supports for historically underserved students from different backgrounds. 

Students from minority or lower-income groups often report feeling alienated and unsupported, which can lead to lower engagement and student retention rates.

The systemic roots of equity gaps

Understanding the systemic roots of equity gaps in higher education requires a deep dive into the historical, socioeconomic, and policy-driven factors that have shaped the current landscape. These roots are deeply intertwined, each influencing and reinforcing the others in a complex matrix that affects educational outcomes for diverse student populations.

Historically, factors such as discrimination, segregation, and unequal access to resources have contributed to equity gaps. These historical injustices have long-lasting effects, creating systemic barriers that still exist today. 

Socioeconomic factors, including income inequality and intergenerational wealth transfer, also play a significant role. Students from lower-income families face multiple barriers, including but not limited to, financial constraints, limited access to high-quality primary and secondary education, and fewer opportunities for academic and professional enrichment. 

These socioeconomic disparities are compounded by the rising costs of higher education, making it increasingly difficult for economically disadvantaged students to pursue and complete higher education degrees.

Moreover, policy decisions related to education funding, affirmative action, and social welfare programs can either perpetuate or mitigate these disparities. Policies that do not explicitly address the needs of underrepresented students can inadvertently perpetuate disparities, while well-designed policies can be powerful tools for change.

The far-reaching impact of educational disparities

Equity gaps in higher education not only hinder the academic and professional achievements of affected students but also have profound, long-term effects on their well-being and the broader community.

Academic and professional outcomes

Students facing educational disparities often experience lower academic achievement, higher dropout rates, and reduced access to advanced degrees. This directly impacts their professional opportunities, as the lack of higher education credentials can limit access to well-paying, stable careers.

In fact, students who start out underemployed are more likely to remain underemployed for the majority of their careers

Mental health implications

The stress of navigating an educational system that does not adequately support all its students can take a significant toll on mental health. Students from underrepresented groups often face additional pressures, including:

  • Imposter syndrome.
  • Racial or socioeconomic discrimination.
  • The burden of being first-generation college students. 

These pressures can lead to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, affecting students' academic performance and overall quality of life.

Future employability 

Educational disparities significantly affect future employability. Research has shown that higher educational attainment is closely correlated with higher employment rates and economic well-being.

Educational inequalities can lead to the unequal distribution of educational resources, hindering the development of essential knowledge and skills needed for success in the workforce. Addressing these disparities is crucial for promoting equal access to quality education and improving future employability.

Societal ripple effects

Educational disparities have broader societal implications as well. A less educated workforce can hinder economic growth, innovation, and competitiveness on a global scale. In fact, it has been proven that education is a fundamental driver of labor productivity and is closely linked to economic well-being.

On top of that, the perpetuation of inequity can exacerbate social divisions and undermine efforts toward building cohesive, inclusive communities. 

What stands in the way of closing educational equity gaps?

Despite a growing awareness of the importance of equity and inclusion, several significant barriers hinder progress in closing educational equity gaps, such as:

  • Funding limitations: Many interventions designed to close equity gaps, such as scholarship programs, enhanced support services, and infrastructure improvements, require substantial financial investment; however, educational institutions often grapple with budget constraints, making it difficult to allocate sufficient resources toward these initiatives. 
  • Resistance to change: Institutions may face resistance to changing existing practices and procedures from various quarters, including administration, faculty, and even students, making it challenging to implement necessary reforms.
  • Lack of comprehensive support: Limited resources and support in systems such as academic advising, mental health services, career counseling, and social integration programs can hinder efforts to address disparities in educational outcomes and student success metrics across different demographic groups.
  • Inadequate data and analysis: Without robust data and analysis, it becomes challenging to understand the root causes of disparities and to implement targeted interventions.
  • Societal and structural inequities: Educational inequities can manifest in the form of disparities in funding, teacher quality, access to advanced coursework, and opportunities for underrepresented student groups, which cannot all be addressed by higher educational institutions alone.

Strategies for closing equity gaps in higher education

Addressing and ultimately closing equity gaps in higher education is a complex challenge that requires innovative, evidence-based strategies. Innovative and successful strategies employed by institutions globally to close equity gaps in higher education often involve work-based learning (WBL) and experiential learning. 

These strategies aim to provide equitable access to educational opportunities and enhance student engagement, improve academic outcomes, and increase future employability.

Incorporating more work-based learning opportunities

Work-based learning programs, such as those offered by Riipen, play a crucial role in providing students, especially those from underserved communities, with relevant experiences that prepare them for real-world challenges. 

Arizona State University is a great example of this in action. ASU ramped up the inclusion of work-based learning programs into its curriculum, delivering more than 12,000 authentic experiences to students who may not have had the opportunity to complete them otherwise.

Not only did the students develop professional networks and critical skills they needed to stand out in the workforce, but they felt a greater sense of belonging because they had access to these opportunities. 

Integrating digital experiential learning platforms 

Virtual experiential learning is another key strategy to effectively implement hands-on opportunities and career clarity, especially for minority students who may have limited access to traditional internships.

Digital platforms facilitate connections between students and employers, offering remote internships and virtual projects that can reach students regardless of their geographic location.

The benefits of virtual experiential learning for educators, students, and employers include promoting equity in global learning and opening doors for international students who, traditionally, have a difficult time obtaining internships due to visa constraints. 

Pave the way for educational equality

The disparities that mar the educational landscape are not insurmountable; they challenge us to rethink, reimagine, and reinvent the ways in which we support and empower all students to achieve their fullest potential.

Riipen stands at the forefront of this mission, committed to bridging the equity gaps through meaningful and impactful partnerships between educational institutions and industry. 

The platform is designed to create equitable learning environments and eliminate underemployment by enabling access to work-based learning opportunities for learners from all backgrounds and geographies. 

Educators can log into the platform and search through the open marketplace to find an existing project from over 30,000 industry partners across the globe. If they can’t find anything that fits, they have the option to design their own experience using one of the built-in templates. 

Once completed, the platform’s smart-matching technology finds the perfect industry partners for your project. Dr. Shah of the University of California uses the platform to bring “ maximum value to [her] students.” 

She schedules meetings with the industry partners the platform has matched her with to “refine and clarify the course guidelines and objectives for students” so that everyone is on the same page for the project. 

Whether you are an educator looking to enrich your curriculum or an administrator looking to scale your work-based learning opportunities, Riipen is an excellent partner for creating more equitable experiences. 


Jump ahead:

Key takeaways

  • Equity gaps in higher education are disparities in educational outcomes across different demographic groups. 
  • Equity gaps are evident in the limited availability of internships, research projects, and extracurricular activities for students from marginalized communities, restricting their ability to gain valuable experience and develop necessary skills for post-graduate success.
  • Educational disparities significantly affect academic and professional outcomes, mental health, future employability, and broader societal implications, including economic growth and social cohesion.
  • Effective strategies to close these gaps involve work-based learning (WBL) and experiential learning to provide equitable access to educational opportunities, enhance student engagement, and improve future employability. 

Schedule a free demo to take the first step towards closing the equity gaps in higher education.

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