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Making Higher Education Accessible: Taking a Critical Look at Inclusivity in Postsecondary Institutions

  • 22 Min Read

When somebody mentions accessibility in higher education, what comes to mind? You might think about the accessibility of your campus to all types of bodies, movement and thought processes; the affordability of tuition; or the availability of the right technology to download a reading or watch a video.

Of course, there’s no right answer. When the diversity of the students and faculty who help make up a postsecondary institution are considered, it’s clear there’s a lot of ground to cover. It’s also clear the ground is not even.

Admitting there are gaps is the first step in addressing accessibility in higher education. To start, institutions can begin considering how to bridge the gap on diversity, inclusion and equity for faculty and students when it comes to:

  • Equity in admissions: Consider both students who are admitted and faculty who are tenured or have higher job security.
  • Community: Create safe spaces for students and faculty to share, learn and grow.
  • Diverse learning requirements: Think about how to support students with registered needs or how to provide the right training to faculty who are learning to work in digital spaces.
  • Financial support: Investigate ways to help students who can’t afford their tuition and required course materials. For faculty, financial support could be provided to those who may be doing overtime to adjust to a hybrid learning environment.
  • Support services: Make sure students and faculty are aware of and have access to resources that provide the mental, emotional and physical support they may need.

These are only some interpretations of where accessibility can be addressed in higher education. It’s important for all institutions to take a hard look at their stance on accessibility and inclusion to find ways to help make it better. While it’s an iterative and ongoing process that will take time, you can consider the suggestions below as a place to start thinking about what can be done to make learning more inclusive for everyone.

Equity in Admissions and Enrollment

Having representation across students, faculty and staff is important for any university that wants to be diverse and inclusive.

For faculty, this means hiring and promoting scholars from all walks of life and choosing the best candidate for open positions.

For students, the process of inclusion and diversity can often start with admissions.

Student applicants

One of the first places to start when it comes to making higher education accessible to more people is with recruitment, admissions and enrollment. The study “Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education” shows that while enrollment among nonwhite undergrad students is growing in postsecondary schools in the U.S., in 2015 70% of white high school graduates were enrolled in college, compared to 55% of Black high school graduates.

With this in mind, how are colleges marketing their institutions to diversify their applicant pool? What’s being considered when deciding who is admitted? And how can the recruitment and admissions process be refined to make colleges more inclusive?

In 2015, 70% of white high school graduates were enrolled in college, compared to 55% of Black high school graduates.

Jeff Selingo is a journalist and author whose most recent book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, takes a hard look at equity in the admissions process. Are we starry-eyed to believe college admissions is truly merit-based? And if it isn’t, what other factors are being considered to construe equity in the admissions decision?

For example, Selingo highlights several areas that college admissions can address to make the playing field fairer for applicants:

Applicant pool

To help admit more diverse applicants, a good place to start is with recruiting efforts.

Do you focus on the same feeder schools every year to recruit applicants? In this case, just because it isn’t broken doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fix it. Recruiting from feeder schools in affluent neighborhoods discounts students from outside these circles who are working just as hard and can achieve the same level of success.

Instead of accepting students based on the needs of a varsity team or because their family has a history of attendance, colleges must proactively push to be more accessible.

Learners at high schools that have a higher number of students of color often don’t get the same level of advanced coursework and preparation to attend college as do those at schools with mostly white students. It’s for reasons like this that colleges must break down the barriers between privileged students who have been given the best opportunity to attend postsecondary schooling and those who may not have had the same advantages.

Northeastern Technical College (NETC) recognized the disparity in college accessibility for those in underrepresented communities and did something about it.

“Our No. 1 goal is to reach the students who never had the opportunity to go to college,” said Dr. Kyle Wagner, President of NETC. “We need to connect with those students to show them the importance of technical education and the opportunities available for skilled workers in their community.”

As first-generation students make up over 80% of the undergraduate population at NETC, it was quickly identified that these students would likely need to lean more on faculty for guidance and support.

“[Faculty] can identify students who aren’t performing well or who aren’t attending their course on a regular basis. For students who are at risk, we can bring in our student services or dean of students to do additional advising, guidance and tutoring.”

Derk Riechers, Director of Modalities, NETC

 
After investing in a comprehensive learning management system (LMS), NETC was able to use D2L Brightspace™ to provide its students with the support they needed to succeed. “[Faculty] can identify students who aren’t performing well or who aren’t attending their course on a regular basis,” said Derk Riechers, Director of Modalities at NETC. “For students who are at risk, we can bring in our student services or dean of students to do additional advising, guidance and tutoring.”

Want to see Brightspace for yourself? Find out how you can get a 30-day free trial.

Transparency

When college application time rolls around, it’s important to be upfront and honest with your potential applicants. Selingo mentions that tuition costs should be clearly outlined so students can truly understand whether they’re able to afford attendance. Being realistic about costs can help students plan their budgets effectively, ultimately helping improve retention.

Stating clear application requirements is another point Selingo brings up. Make the playing field more level for your applicants by letting them know what you like to see. Is it grades and coursework? Or do you like to see extracurriculars and recommendations?

Some institutions, like Vassar College, will be making admissions test-optional. In a study, Vassar found that especially for students of color, high school GPA was a better indicator of success than SAT or ACT scores. Testing was also found to be a barrier to including more diverse applicants.

stat comparing gpa to standardized testing

Just because something has been done the same way for a long time, doesn’t mean the pattern can’t be broken. To help embrace accessibility and inclusivity, it’s important to be open to trying new initiatives and seeing what works.

Faculty Diversity

Just as important as supporting accessibility and diversity in the student body is having this support when it comes to hiring and promoting faculty.

Fidelity Investments and The Chronicle of Higher Education surveyed 1,122 faculty from across the U.S. and found that since 2020, 38% have seriously considered retiring. Thirty-one percent said they considered changing jobs within higher education, while 35% said they thought about leaving the field of higher education altogether.

stat on faculty who want to leave profession since 2020

As negative as this sounds, the prospect of more tenured faculty retiring may not be all bad, said Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education and director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. These retirements can open the door for a more diverse pool of tenured faculty, including women and people of color.

Lorgia García Peña, currently an associate professor and chair in the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism and Diaspora at Tufts University, is unfortunately all too familiar with racial injustice for faculty in higher education.

In her book Community as Rebellion, she details her experiences with inequity in hiring and promoting deserving faculty.

While she was working as an assistant professor of Latinx studies at Harvard, García Peña’s Romance Languages and Literatures department was given the green light to hire a tenured professor.

Citing higher enrollment numbers of Latinx students in departments of romance languages and literatures and being one of only two Latinas in the humanities department during her time at the institution, García Peña pushed to hire a Latinx scholar.

Instead, the department hired another scholar focused on European literature, who was also a white man.

“At the end of the meeting, a well-intentioned white senior colleague pulled me aside and told me that to protect my tenure, the department should not be hiring anyone else in Latinx studies, and especially not another Latina,” said García Peña in Community as Rebellion. “They were sincere and well-meaning in their desire to protect me; they knew that in the eyes of the administration, there could be only one of us.”

One way to help combat the lack of inclusivity for faculty in higher education, as the title of García Peña’s book suggests, is through community. By leaning on one another and collectively acknowledging and pushing back against equitable injustices in higher education, we can help drive change.

The Power of Communities in Higher Education

Creating communities and safe spaces in which students and faculty can learn, grow and develop is fundamental when trying to make higher education more accessible and inclusive.

Whether these communities include just students or both students and faculty—or any other combination, for that matter—providing a way for like-minded individuals to come together and connect can create a catalyst for change.

Creating a Sense of Belonging for Faculty

When it comes to how faculty view diversity and inclusion on their campuses, the opinions are skewed. The Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education’s (COACHE) Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey found that 73% of white faculty agreed that leadership at their institution provided support for diversity, compared to only 55% of Black faculty who agreed and 31% of Black faculty who disagreed.

Another survey by COACHE, focused on faculty with both visible and invisible disabilities, found that 27% of those with a visible disability and 36% of those with an invisible disability didn’t feel a sense of belonging within their department.

When it comes down to it, talk is cheap. What really matter are the actions institutions are taking to show their faculty they’re making changes to promote a diverse and inclusive community.

stat on faculty diversity reflected in higher ed

One way to do this is by creating partnerships with organizations that can help implement systemic changes, said Kieran Matthews, Director and Principal Investigator of COACHE.

Matthews suggests the Aspire Alliance or SEA Change at the American Association for the Advancement of Science as two of many organizations that can help institutions look at what they say they want to accomplish in terms of diversity and inclusion and make it happen.

Creating these partnerships is a great way to bring like-minded people together and help build community among faculty.

Fostering Community Among Students

As the online world of education continues to grow, technology is a tool that higher education institutions can and should lean on to help create community.

After incorporating more online learning at their school, a group of scholars from the School of Psychology in the University of Glasgow came up with several ways to encourage inclusive communities between faculty and students when studying online:

icon of megaphone

Emotional regulation: A message written online leaves the door open for it to be construed by the reader. Instead, faculty can leave feedback using video or voice messaging to allow for their tone to be clear.

icon of clock

Office hours: Providing your students with office hours on different days and times gives more flexibility for those with different personal or familial commitments.

icon of chat box

Communication type: Being available via chat or video conference helps to include those with different levels of comfort when communicating online.

Creating safe spaces for all students to learn and grow is just one way to help promote inclusion in higher education.

Diverse Learning Requirements

Disclosing a part of one’s identity that makes them different from peers is a personal choice that’s not always easy or necessary to make.

When classrooms are accommodating from the start, all students can benefit, not just those who may need additional support.

Student Accessibility

A solution to student accommodation often being considered as an afterthought is Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

“UDL is an educational framework that emphasizes the use of flexible goals, methods, materials, and assessments in order to provide effective instruction to a diversity of learners,” says the guide Creating Accessible Learning Environments by Vanderbilt University. “Rather than approaching accessibility as an afterthought or only on a case-by-case basis, UDL principles help instructors to design courses that address the needs of diverse learners from the start so that all students may benefit.”

For example, having a note-taker is an accommodation some students with vision or hearing impairments may require. However, note-taking is an accommodation that can benefit all students partaking in the class, and it can help increase inclusivity.

“Rather than approaching accessibility as an afterthought or only on a case-by-case basis, UDL principles help instructors to design courses that address the needs of diverse learners from the start so that all students may benefit.”

Creating Accessible Learning Environments, Vanderbilt University

 
Vanderbilt suggests that the student who takes on the role of notetaker can be rotated among the class to create a set of shared notes available to everyone.

When shifting to the perspective of faculty, providing the right training can help make teaching, especially in online environments, more accessible.

Faculty Training

One way to introduce increased accessibility in higher education is through technology. For example, a high-performing LMS can offer built-in features that are easy for faculty to use, like:

  • accessibility checking
  • automatic closed captioning of video
  • quiz time extensions
  • extended deadlines for specific groups of students
  • integration with accessibility-focused partners

To learn more about what these features look like in an LMS, check out these four ways D2L Brightspace helps make learning more accessible and inclusive.

However, when introducing new tech, it’s integral to provide proactive training to make it accessible to faculty.

“I’m simultaneously teaching in-person and distance-learning students; each requires vastly different techniques. I feel like if I address one group properly, the other group suffers,” said an anonymous respondent in the “On The Verge of Burnout” survey looking at the impact COVID-19 has had on faculty in the United States.

To mitigate this problem, proactive training can help. When North Carolina State University introduced new accessibility features, its Disability Resource Office created resources to help faculty navigate them, like how to work with a screen reader or use closed captioning.

In some cases, a powerful LMS will take advantage of technology that promotes accessibility. Brightspace integrates with ReadSpeaker text-to-speech, which easily reads aloud text with the click of a button, no training required.

It’s safe to say that online learning isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The more proactive institutions can be about training staff and faculty to use digital teaching tech, the sooner it will become more accessible to students and faculty alike.

Finding Financial Support

The desire to attend college and the ability to afford it are two separate things. The same could be said of the desire to teach at a college level and being able to afford to do so.

Whether it’s students or faculty, steps need to be taken to ensure learning and teaching in higher education are affordable.

Surviving Student Debt

It’s no secret that pursuing postsecondary education is expensive.

stats on student debt in U.S.

Recent research has found that almost a third of students across America are in debt due to their studies, with the average student loan debt in 2021 amounting to $40,904.

Research also shows that when compared to white students and those with higher incomes, Black and lower-income students had higher levels of education debt: $52,726 upon graduation compared to $28,006.

Programs like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid are important to help students mitigate some of the cost of their tuition. But the application process can be confusing and the cost that remains can still be too great for many prospective students to afford.

One way to alleviate the financial burden is through grants and assistance programs offered at an institutional level.

The City University of New York has created Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) to help support students’ enrollment in and graduation from its programs. ASAP assists students through academic, personal and financial support.

ASAP supports students financially by waiving any tuition not covered by financial aid and giving them free access to public transportation as well as the use of textbooks at no additional charge.

A study that looked at a select number of students over three years found that the graduation rate in ASAP was nearly double the rate in the control group, at 40% and 22% respectively.

Programs like this recognize the need for access to financial support for students to be able to succeed in postsecondary education. Without financial support, fewer students enroll in and graduate from college, further limiting their access to the financial support provided by the secure employment that is often found through education.

Key Takeaway

The idea of looming debt can deter students from applying to postsecondary education. Being made aware of and having access to available financial support—from both the government and institutions themselves—can encourage more students to enroll in and graduate from college.

Compensating Faculty

After the pivot to online learning because of the pandemic, many higher education faculty cited higher workloads and a disruption to work-life balance.

Since 2020, 74% of women—those who typically bore the brunt of “balancing” work and family during the pandemic—felt their work-life balance had deteriorated, compared to 63% of men. Eighty-two percent of women also said their workload had increased, compared to 70% of men.

Not only do these numbers further shed light on the inequity of how women can be treated in the workplace, but they also raise the question of how faculty are being compensated for the additional work an online or blended learning model can create.

Some universities offer incentives for faculty to teach online. Colorado Mesa University uses a different method to determine the salary for instructors who teach online, and it often adds up to more money.

The University of New Haven offers stipends for instructors who develop and teach hybrid courses.

Providing additional financial support is a viable option when asking instructors to spend more time learning new technology and planning hybrid courses. Just as important as financial support is providing the right services to faculty and students who may be feeling burned out.

The Significance of Support Services

College is a large endeavor for young students to undertake. Throughout their entire college career, students will require access to different support services, and it’s up to their institutions to be there for them when they need it.

Students will often lean on their faculty for support in times of need. But whom do faculty lean on when they are feeling burned out?

Student Support

While the jump from secondary school to college may not seem that big from the outside looking in, it can be quite a change for students living in the moment.

Most college students start attending their school around the ripe old age of 18, and they are expected to quickly understand how to manage their tuition payments, register for courses, study effectively, socialize and do well, among many other tasks.

Personalized mentoring or coaching for students has been shown to improve enrollment rates. Student services like these can be particularly meaningful for students who may be less familiar with the college environment.

This is one of the many reasons why support services like peer tutoring, academic advising and counseling are so fundamental for all students.

Personalized mentoring or coaching for students has been shown to improve enrollment rates. Student services like these can be particularly meaningful for students who may be less familiar with the college environment, like first-generation students or students entering from high schools with less-advanced college preparation.

Georgia State University (GSU) realized the power student services can have on improving academic outcomes. Its leaders decided to harness the power of data and take a proactive approach to providing at-risk students with support when the students needed it.

After desegregation in the 1960s, GSU’s student demographic went from 75% white in the 1980s to 77% nonwhite today. However, graduation rates in the 1960s for students of color weren’t great, sitting at just over 20%.

Today, the graduation rate for nonwhite students has risen 70%, a change that was made possible due to the university’s student success program. GSU analyzed data from its student information system and LMS, Brightspace, to understand when to intervene and provide students with personalized support.

After pivoting to an online learning model when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the student success team noticed an alarming trend of low log-on rates for first-year students.

“We used that data to guide targeted interventions—we had 30,000 instances where advisors reached out to students because they weren’t logging on to the LMS,” said Dr. Tim Renick, a tenured professor at GSU and Executive Director at the National Institute for Student Success. “Even so, we ultimately saw a significant increase in non-pass rates for first-year students in critical classes like introductory math and English composition.”

This data led to the creation of a summer program that was made available to 600 first-year students who wished to retake their failed courses. The program enabled 400 of those students to get a passing grade and helped keep them on track for their studies in their second year.

By using existing data, GSU was able to proactively provide the support needed to help students who were struggling with their coursework—before it was too late.

Interested in finding out more about how Brightspace can help identify and support at-risk students? Watch this video to learn more.

Focusing on Faculty’s Access to Support

In postsecondary institutions, support services tend to revolve around students, often leaving faculty in the dark.

In Inside Higher Ed’s 2022 Survey of College and University Presidents, 97% of presidents indicated they’re somewhat or very aware of the state of their faculty’s mental health. However, only 55% somewhat or strongly agreed that they had the capacity to meet the mental health needs of faculty.

stat on higher ed presidents' awareness of faculty mental health

Since 2020, half of faculty surveyed in “On The Verge of Burnout” indicated their love for teaching increased or stayed the same, which means the other half found their enjoyment slipping.

When it comes down to it, access to support services for faculty must become a priority in higher education.

Some colleges are leading by example and have introduced programs to help manage the stressors faced by faculty. Barnard College has introduced two new programs to help support its faculty.

The Preceptor Program invites students to apply for jobs to help faculty in the online learning environment. From moderating discussions to managing breakout rooms, these students can assist faculty with the shift to online learning. In exchange, the students get to work closely with faculty and take a step inside virtual classrooms that align with their academic goals or give them a glimpse into a new area of study.

Barnard College has also introduced its Virtual Tutoring Corps. In this program, students are hired to tutor the children of faculty and staff. Not only does this provide relevant experience for the students, but it also helps relieve some of the family-related stress or obligations faced by faculty.

Moving Forward With Accessibility in Higher Education

Addressing accessibility, inclusion, diversity and equity in higher education is an ongoing process.

When it comes to seeing diversity reflected institution-wide, Dr. Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, said the work will never be done and won’t always be easy or comfortable.

“When we talk about creating spaces for students to innovate and for institutions to innovate, it starts [with] understanding a simple concept. You must become comfortable in uncomfortable places,” said Dr. Sorrell during the D2L webinar “The Student Experience: Reimagined.” “If you want to innovate, you have to come to terms with the fact that you must always be seeking improvements, which means you must be comfortable with change. And you must continue to ask yourself the hard questions. And if you do that, then you have a real chance of creating an environment which engages and encourages everyone.”

The topics covered here are merely a starting point for how accessibility can be addressed in higher education. As for Dr. Sorrell, he encourages people to demystify the ideas of accessibility and equity.

“If we would all just start from a really simple place of just trying to treat each other the way we would want to be treated and owning the fact that we’re going to make mistakes, but those mistakes don’t define us unless we stop evolving, I think we could get to much, much better places,” said Sorrell. “I don’t want to insult anyone whose life work has been this—who believes that it’s incredibly complicated—because it is complex. But I do think, at all times, the genius is in the simplification of complex ideas.”

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