Innovation in College & Career Preparation

AAC&U Initiative Will Test Equity-Minded Models to Improve Student Outcomes

Lorenzo Esters, USA FundsBy Lorenzo L. Esters, Senior Program Director, USA Funds

Based on current population projections, 49 percent of the high school class of 2027 will be students of color. That means colleges can expect to enroll increasing numbers of minority students.

Unless college outcome rates improve for the nation’s minorities, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, this increase in the numbers of students attending college will not necessarily translate into an increase in the number who actually complete college. Student retention and completion rates are significantly lower for these populations, especially for low-income minority students.

AACU-logo_largeAccording to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education, three in five students pursuing bachelor’s degrees can expect to actually graduate within six years of their starting enrollment. Only one in two Hispanics and two in five African-Americans are likely to graduate from college. This disparity in college outcomes is the impetus for a new initiative being undertaken by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, with support from USA Funds®. The project — “Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence: Campus-Based Strategies for Student Success ” — reflects AAC&U’s decision to focus on the “equity imperative” during 2015, which marks the association’s centennial year.


The AAC&U was established in 1915 to advance liberal education excellence. In the first phase of this new initiative, the association will survey its 1,300 members, which include public and private colleges, research universities, comprehensive universities, and community colleges, to identify common issues related to addressing equity in student learning, retention and degree completion. In the second phase, the AAC&U will work with a select group of leadership campuses to develop action-oriented programs designed to reverse inequities in student achievement and learning, boost persistence and completion rates, and provide better career preparation for underserved students.

Twelve schools from diverse institutional types have been chosen to represent key student populations. The group includes:

  • Three community colleges.
    • Anne Arundel Community College (Maryland).
    • Lansing Community College (Michigan).
    • Wilbur Wright College (Illinois).
  • Three historically black colleges (HBCUs).
    • Clark Atlanta University (Georgia).
    • Morgan State University (Maryland).
    • North Carolina A&T State University.
  • Three Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs).
    • California State University, Northridge.
    • Dominican University (Illinois).
    • Florida International University.

Three schools that serve predominantly white populations or Asian-American, Native American or Pacific Islander populations (PWIs and AANAPSIs, respectively).

  • California State University, Sacramento.
  • Governors State University (Illinois).
  • Pomona College (California).

This second phase will bring together two evidence-based approaches to improving student success.  Research shows that schools can improve student outcomes by establishing action plans that specifically target course completion, retention and graduation rates for underserved students. In addition, a growing body of work shows that student participation in high-impact educational practices that are considered essential to a high-quality liberal education can significantly improve both college completion and career outcomes. These high-impact practices include:

  • Internships.
  • Service-learning projects.
  • Learning communities.
  • Undergraduate research opportunities.
  • First-year seminars.
  • Capstone courses.
  • Intensive-writing courses.
  • Global learning experiences.

Through these activities, students learn how to apply knowledge and hone problem-solving skills — capabilities that employers prize. Because surveys also show that minority students are less likely to participate in these high-impact learning practices, the AAC&U equity project can help determine the extent to which these practices can help improve college completion and career outcomes for underserved students.

The AAC&U initiative has been carefully structured not only to identify campus-level programs that help close the achievement gap for low-income students, minorities and underserved student populations, but also to actively promote adoption of effective practices by postsecondary institutions nationwide. In the third phase of this two-year project, the findings of the 12 campuses will be presented to the AAC&U’s membership through the association’s periodical, “Peer Review,” and through the association’s leadership institutes.

The demographic forces that are changing the face of American college campuses are already in play, giving the AAC&U project and other equity-minded retention initiatives, such as the University Innovation Alliance and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ First Year Redesign, an unquestionable urgency. Closing the college achievement gap is an imperative for education policymakers, the business community, and, most of all, the nation’s postsecondary institutions.

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