Dr. Jeremiah J. Sims, a consultant and author specializing in equity in higher education, was recently working with a California college that had noticed that Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students were less likely to take advantage of academic advising office hours.
Serving a region where 59 percent of the population are racially minoritized, the college having lower participation by minoritized students with the counseling services office was both a concern and an opportunity. Academic advising at the time was using what it thought was a flexible first-come, first-served system that allowed students to meet with counselors on their own schedule, so the low utilization was surprising.
Working with this college, Sims, who is co-author of Improving Departmental Equity Using the IMPACT Framework, a new resource guide developed in collaboration with Every Learner Everywhere and Intentional Futures, recommended that they start with an equity audit.
Identifying the process problems
A departmental-level equity audit is a process to identify the practices, policies, and procedures that create systemic barriers for minoritized and poverty-affected students. The IMPACT framework Sims uses in his independent work coaching and training on equity involves benchmarking and assessing the current experiences of students and critically reflecting on the role the department plays in creating equity. It asks participants in the equity audit to reflect on questions like:
- How does this policy perpetuate structural inequity?
- Who is being privileged and who is being penalized by this policy?
- How is this policy holding our institution back from having an equitable culture?
The college began its equity audit process wondering why Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students weren’t visiting with academic advisors. But when they examined the data more closely, they realized that within those student populations, it was specifically poverty-affected students who weren’t getting services. After understanding this base-level data, the department surveyed students to find out more.
That’s when they began to reconsider the flexible first-come, first-served procedure for academic advising. “The department thought it was being innovative and removing a barrier to entry by not requiring students to make an appointment before meeting with an academic advisor,” Sims says. “In reality, we found that this policy wasn’t meeting the needs of poverty-affected students.”
The flexibility — and the inability to schedule an appointment — meant uncertainty about how much time an advising and scheduling meeting would take. Students would have to take time off work, drive to campus, and wait for a meeting. Working students were sometimes giving up three to five hours of wages to see an academic advisor.
In short, the equity audit identified a process that the department had designed to be more equitable but was actually penalizing working students. “The only students who could wait three to five hours were those with higher socioeconomic status,” Sims says.
In response, the college counseling office revised their processes to allow both timed appointments and drop-in hours.
Equity audits create equity practitioners
Sims sees the equity audit process as a way to help college faculty and staff develop an anti-racist growth mindset that has impacts beyond the individual policy changes.
Anti-racist growth mindset is a term coined by Sims and his co-author Jeramy Wallace in their forthcoming book The White Educators’ Guide to Equity: Teaching for Justice in Community Colleges (Spring 2022). An anti-racist growth mindset recognizes that, although most people are indoctrinated to white supremacy through the culture in which they’re raised, individuals can work to recognize and dismantle white supremacy.
“The people in the counseling department or other people who use the equity audit may have never considered themselves equity practitioners before,” Sims says. “But by performing an equity audit to look into these kinds of issues, now they’re part of the inquiry and learning how to identify and work to change inequity.”
Tools like the IMPACT framework “identify inequities that are a result of inequalities,” Sims says. “If people keep doing this kind of work, they can start to shift into having an anti-racist growth mindset. That’s when real change can start to happen.”