The Equity Imperative

By Private: Cristen Moore -

Promising Policy: Driving Better Outcomes and Equity in Education

Propelling more Americans toward postsecondary credentials of value must continue to be a priority for states nationwide. While obtaining a credential of value provides benefits for all students, significant benefits accrue to those from traditionally underserved and underrepresented populations. Postsecondary attainment is a powerful tool that affords these populations greater economic stability and upward social mobility.[1]

During the past 50 years, the demand for jobs for employees with no higher than a high school diploma has fallen considerably; by 2020, it will have fallen by nearly 16 percent. In contrast, the demand for jobs for employees with a bachelor’s degree will rise by 15 percent by 2020.[2] To meet the increased need for employees with a postsecondary degree or credential and help today’s students succeed in the workforce, state policymakers and higher education providers must offer various pathways to attainment. When states prioritize the need for an educated citizenry, more Americans from every background will have the opportunity to advance. This focus is particularly important for communities of color, who historically have had to navigate systemic barriers that impede their access to quality education and, ultimately, the American Dream.

Recognizing the importance of postsecondary credentials to economic growth, most states have set robust attainment goals to guide policy development and have implemented strategies aimed at improving educational outcomes. Moreover, in many states, success in meeting these goals is tied directly to the state’s ability to ensure access and completion for increasingly diverse populations, most notably Black/African American, Hispanic/Latinx, American Indian/Native American, and other racial and ethnic groups the state identifies as traditionally being underserved.[3]

While attainment goals in some states reflect a focus on equity, socioeconomic status (e.g., low income) often is used as a proxy for equity. Socioeconomic status can be a way to identify equity gaps, but it cannot be the only identifier. Such a substitute overlooks the structural barriers that disproportionately affect racial and ethnic communities.[4] Policymakers and higher education providers must consider race and ethnicity when addressing equity.

“Equity, in this instance, is the acknowledgment of the patterns of imbalance in various structures, policies and practices that affect student outcomes for people of color “and awareness of the social and historical context of exclusionary practices in American higher education.” —University of Southern California, Center for Urban Education, “Equity Mindedness,”

Although postsecondary attainment has increased nationally by nine percentage points since 2008, significant gaps by race and ethnicity persist. As of 2016, the postsecondary attainment level for White/Caucasians was 46 percent. For people of color, postsecondary attainment was much lower, with Black/African Americans at 30 percent, Hispanics/Latinx at 22 percent and Native Americans/American Indians at 24 percent.[5] Comparable trends are evident across states. Without deliberate strategies to address these postsecondary attainment gaps, more and more Americans in communities of color will be at a stark disadvantage (see Postsecondary Attainment Goals in Colorado and Pennsylvania).

Postsecondary Attainment Goals in Colorado and Pennsylvania

Colorado: Increase the percentage of Coloradans ages 25–34 who hold high-quality postsecondary credentials (degrees or certificates) to 66 percent by 2025 and reduce attainment gaps among students from underserved communities.*

Pennsylvania: Ensure 60 percent of the population ages 25–64 holds a postsecondary degree or industry-recognized credential by 2025, with a particular focus on closing attainment gaps for historically underrepresented populations.**

* Colorado Department of Higher Education
** State Board of Education, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

State investments and policies that guide higher education perform a crucial role in creating equity in both access and completion. Yet, states and higher education providers not only must support the increased matriculation of priority populations, but also provide the necessary financial, structural and programmatic elements required for student success. These demographic groups typically are not served well by the current systems and practices of higher education providers. While state policies often create incentives for higher education entities to enroll more students, these policies too often fail to require or encourage the provision of student supports, particularly for students who need them the most. Increasing success for students of color will require different delivery models and an increased focus on the necessary student supports.[6]

States must work with higher education providers to increase postsecondary attainment and tackle the heightened equity imperative. They have the opportunity and responsibility to craft pathways that promote participation for traditionally underserved and underrepresented populations and provide appropriate supports for them. Helping more students of color attain credentials of value will afford greater economic stability and upward social mobility. State investments to achieve equity in postsecondary attainment benefit this generation of at-risk students, but they can also positively change the trajectory for future generations. Moreover, economic growth will be spurred as the citizenry becomes more educated, benefiting states and the nation.






[1] Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development and Office of the Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Education, Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education: Key Data Highlights Focusing on Race and Ethnicity and Promising Practices (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, November 2016),>
[2] Anthony Carnevale et al., Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020 (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, June 26, 2013),
[3] The Education Trust, “The State of Higher Education Equity,”
[4] HCM Strategists, “Equity-Minded Leadership,” unpublished paper.
[5] Lumina Foundation, “A Stronger Nation,”
[6] Martha Snyder et al., State Finance Policy Best Practices (Washington, D.C.: HCM Strategists, June 2016),
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