An Equity Agenda for Higher Education

Ted Mitchell is president of the American Council on Education, a Washington-based organization representing more than 1,700 higher education institutions. He was Under Secretary of Education in the Obama administration and served as president of Occidental College, New Schools Venture Fund, and the California State Board of Education. In November 2022, at the fourth-annual National Dual Mission Summit hosted by Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, he spoke about what it would take to make higher education a more equitable sector of American society. These are his edited remarks.

I want to talk about equity in higher education, using three lenses: access, completion, and student success. Each of these is important in its own right, but equity can only be achieved by creating a diverse and welcoming community, ensuring learning outcomes that are equal among groups and generating opportunities for all graduates independent of race, class, gender and other attributes or preferences. I want to try to integrate them by talking about what we’ve learned through generations of research about what works in each of those areas. The important thing is bringing the lessons into the institutional context and asking, “What kinds of institutions can perform well on all these dimensions?”


Let’s talk about access first. When we think about access, we think oftentimes about providing broader opportunities for people who don’t typically come to college. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. I think what we know is that access, real access, is far more complicated than that. It includes affordability, and not just the cost of college, but the foregone costs of not being employed in the job market. Debt, too.

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Most people who go to college do so within 60 miles of where they live. What if there isn’t a college within 60 miles of where you live? Or what if there is a really bad college within 60 miles of where you live? So, access and proximity are related. As are access and quality.

Flexibility. We’re learning, and COVID really helped us in many ways on this, that if we really want to understand and address the needs of the students of today and tomorrow, we have to be more flexible in how we deliver post-secondary programs. Inflexibility is a big barrier to access, whether it’s a lack of federal financial aid for short-term programs or the tradition that Carnegie Units be based on semester-long courses. We need to break down those barriers and create flexible ways for students to pursue their educational aims.

Preparation. We oftentimes think of preparation as a barrier to access. Or we place people in different locations on our screen because of their preparation. If we really want to promote access, we need to throw formal preparation pretty much out the window. And the movement to eliminate standardized testing is a part of that effort.

Real life. We miss the main challenge to access if we do not understand that a majority of college-goers are not 18-year-olds fresh out of high school ready to spend four years in ivy-covered isolation. We need to understand that students come to us as whole people—something we learned the hard way during the pandemic. They come with families. Some of them are kids in families. Some of them are parents in families. Some of them are siblings in families. You know the configurations. Sixty percent work. But they come to us as real people with real lives. Access means accepting all of a student.

And then finally, access to college isn’t just for the people we admit. It’s also about the community in which the institution sits. And there really isn’t a better story than the story of Colorado Mountain College, which educates many of the nurses, firefighters, and other critical community members in western Colorado. So, access is a super complicated thing when you start to move away from the Fiske Guide-view of access to what really matters for students and families.


Let’s turn to completion. The first questions are, what does completion mean and who gets to decide? For centuries, we’ve decided that the institution gets to decide. James Conant [the former president of Harvard University] decided that in order to complete a science degree at Harvard, you needed to have biology, chemistry, and physics. Why did you need to have them in that order? It’s alphabetical. I’m not kidding.

That’s the epitome of somebody else deciding when you’re done. One hundred and eighty Carnegie Units? Okay, you’re done. In the world that really addresses equity, the learner needs to decide when they’re done. How can we bring that to life?

By creating learning opportunities that are separable but stackable, by understanding that completion is a nonlinear process, that people should be able to come in and out of post-secondary programs. We need to understand that an equitable distribution of completion requires a great deal of support and guidance.

The easiest thing to do is to go to a place that has only one set of requirements, because you have zero choices to make. The hardest thing to do is to go to a place that has lots of choices, because you have lots of decisions to make. Allowing students to make those decisions on their own simply privileges people who have more information, more contacts, and more knowledge about what the implications of those choices are.

Next, I think we need to ask underneath completion, what does it mean to do well enough to move from one course, program, or degree to another? Today we combine time in class with achievement of certain objectives tied to content—a final exam in a course, passing a required menu of courses. What if we were to simply ask students to display mastery, or competency, of a collection of skills, content, and concepts and to do so at their own pace? Western Governors University is probably the best example of an institution that has taken that concept to scale, measuring course completion and progress to degree not by so called seat time but by successfully mastering a matrix of skills.

Finally, in keeping with this concept, we need to make sure that we are crediting, literally and figuratively, the learning that our learners bring to us. As an example, at ACE we have, for decades, certified certain aspects of military and corporate training for college credit, allowing students to present a “bank” of credit when they enroll at the institution of their choice—but only if that institution is open to what is called in the education business “credit for prior learning.”

And then finally, we need to understand that completion, if it’s in the student’s control, is not just a degree. Completion is when a student says, “I have achieved my goal and I’m ready to go do something else.” The joke is that the worst welders are the ones who get their associate’s degrees, because the best welders are hired after two weeks, three weeks, or six weeks of training in community colleges. So, if I’m taking a welding course and I get a job offer, I’m done. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t get my degree, but I have completed what I set out to do. And we need to find ways to credit that as completion of something. It’s not an AA degree, but it’s completion.

And then I guess the last thing that I’ll say is completion isn’t completion. Completion is the end of a chapter, but it’s not the end of the book. And so, the access and completion cycles work together. In a truly equitable higher education ecosystem, student could combine certificates, short-term badges, and regular course units to create a degree that aggregates all those experiences. The welder I mentioned could exit higher education with a certificate, return and finish an AA, and perhaps go on to a BA. On-ramps and off-ramps along the higher education highway should and can be plentiful and well-marked.


And the directional destination of that highway is learner success. Here, too, we must give sovereignty and agency to the learner herself, who will define their own educational journey and their own dream of success. But it is also true that as educational leaders we, to have ideas of success for our students. There are some things about success that we believe as a society and as educators are important.

First, it’s important to have a job. A job provides stability. It provides a level of economic security that’s important for individuals and families. And, critically, it provides a sense of identity.

At ACE we paid a lot of money to a pollster to survey people about their attitudes about higher education. And he came back and basically said, “I’m sorry to charge you so much money, but I think I can probably summarize our findings of what America wants from higher education in three words. They’re expensive words, sorry about that. But they’re jobs, jobs, and jobs.”

We need to understand that.

Second, health. It is widely accepted that educational attainment is positively correlated with a variety of positive health outcomes. Those with more education have lower rates of Type 2 diabetes, are less likely to become obese, smoke less, drink less, and are less likely to suffer from drug or alcohol addiction. Mental health indicators are also positively correlated with educational attainment.

Third, we have long connected education with civic participation and community engagement. Our founders defended education and an informed citizenry as fundamental bulwarks of democracy. Today, we hope people will identify success, in part, as being engaged in their communities.

There’s nothing in these markers of success that is the unique domain of any individual or group. In fact, we prosper as a society, a neighborhood, or a nation the more broadly these successes are achieved by individuals. These successes, while clearly of benefit to learners, are also benefits to all of us. Social good is thus linked to individual success—and it’s why equity is so important.

One of our aims needs to be taking things that are common among communities of privilege and making them visible and doable in communities without privilege. How do we do that?

Networking, creating opportunities for people to engage in communities that are not their own. Curiosity. We need to help people understand that there are more opportunities and more options than they know about. We need to think about wellness, about student and staff wellness as a part of our work. And then, more tactically: internships, apprenticeships, creating ways for industry certifications to be a part of the curriculum. Digital literacy.

These are all things that often come with or are the products of privilege. We need to be aware of that, and we need to create those opportunities for students who traditionally haven’t had them.

So this is a fast tour through a lot of work. What I take away from it is that many, if not most, traditional brick-and-mortar institutions are not going to be able to check off more than a half dozen things on the list.

But there are a handful of institutions, including dual-mission institutions, that have made this their daily work. By dual mission, I intend to capture institutions that are the “one-room schoolhouse” of higher education, seeing to the needs of their learners often within a closed geography, often defying traditional boundaries between two-year and four-year, between vocational and academic, and that provide multiple on-ramps and off-ramps that are not limited by age, class, life condition, or even aspiration level. Whether it’s access, learner-led exits, stackable experiences, or connection to students’ and society’s definitions of success, the dual mission schools you represent have proven themselves to be quality providers of an equitable education.

Underneath the work that you do and central to what I’ve been trying to articulate is a shift in perspective that aligns access, completion, and success in an equitable way: a simple but profound focus on the student. Once we do that, all things are possible in higher education.


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