How States Can Put Equity at the Center of Educational Policy

By Stella M. Flores

Implications for policy and practice

  1. Use equity metrics to assess which populations are not being well served by current policy, and then design interventions for those populations that are attentive to their cultural practices and state contexts of inequality.
  2. Recruit and retain high-quality educators and leaders in K-12 and postsecondary education who are demographically representative of their student populations.
  3. Directly acknowledge and address the factors that have caused inequities in postsecondary education, using various forms of evidence.

To increase large-scale postsecondary and economic opportunity in the United States, policymakers must put the practice and philosophy of equity—the distribution of resources to students and institutions most in need—at the center of policy and program design. Despite many advances, U.S. education has seen a growing disparity between the bachelor’s degree–completion rates of White students and those of students belonging to populations historically underserved in education, such as those who are non-White, who come from low-income backgrounds, or who speak English as a second language. Since the late 1970s, while the percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees has increased overall, the gaps in bachelor’s degree completion between White and minority adults (for example, Black, Latino/a, and Native American adults) have also increased, as shown in Figure 1. Among adults ages 25 to 34, 42 percent of Whites and 61 percent of Asian-Americans had completed at least a bachelor’s degree in 2018; in contrast, 22 percent of Blacks and 20 percent of Latinos had done so. Differences between states must also be considered in forming policy: in 2017, 44 percent of adults ages 18 to 24 in Massachusetts had completed at least a bachelor’s degree, while in Mississippi 22 percent had done so.

Figure 1. Attainment of a Bachelor's Degree or Higher

Figure 1

SOURCE: Data are from the IPUMS USA American Community Survey
NOTES: The graph includes students ages 25 to 34 but excludes adult arrivals. Survey weights applied.

Research on college success has identified four major educational barriers to educational equity.[1]

  • Restricted access to high-quality academic preparation in K-12 education, reflected in limited course availability and teacher quality in schools and neighborhoods historically segregated by race and income
  • Financial constraints for families with low incomes, and federal and state policies that benefit families with higher incomes (for example, tax breaks and merit-based scholarships based primarily on test scores)
  • Limited access to information about college access and success, especially for students who would be the first in their families to attend college
  • Postsecondary institutions that lack funding for services and resources to support college completion for students with low incomes (for example, student support services or financial aid)

Additional research finds that state policy related to higher education access and other outcomes (for example, decisions related to in-state resident tuition for students without U.S. citizenship or legal immigration status and the use of race in college admissions) can directly or indirectly affect college access and completion among racial minorities and immigrant students.[2]

Given these broad challenges, legislators and postsecondary policymakers should work with relevant stakeholders (for example, education practitioners, families and community organizations, and policy intermediaries) to adopt long-term, equity-minded policies such as the following:

To achieve these goals, state policymakers will need support from a number of stakeholder partners to execute and sustain the following shorter-term actions, some of which may already be in motion.

Use equity metrics to assess which populations are not being well served by current policy, and then design interventions for those populations that are responsive to their cultural practices and state contexts of inequality. In addressing equity for students of color and students from low-income families, educational policymakers and practitioners face differing “contexts of reception”: laws related to gender, race, immigration, gender identities, and housing practices. For example, studies show how historical segregation has concentrated Black, Latino, and Native American students into schools with fewer rigorous courses. This concentration leaves them with fewer opportunities to prepare for college courses, which in turn decreases their odds of college completion. Understanding how such influences contribute to inequity can suggest how states and postsecondary institutions can focus their resources and energy. States and postsecondary institutions can use equity metrics composed of high-quality data to design policies and initiatives to address disparities resulting from harmful policies that still affect these student communities.

Further, families across the states are diverse and bring varied experiences and strengths to school. While college opportunity is a goal for many families, interventions should be attentive to the cultures of students and their families. For example, educators in districts where immigrant students face distinct barriers to college completion should identify opportunities in policy to increase completion for these students. States and institutions should acknowledge that one size does not always fit all—incorporating equity metrics that account for students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds is likely to lead to more effective practices.

For more information on supporting success for populations of students who have historically been underserved by postsecondary institutions, see the College Completion Strategy Guide briefs tagged “Populations to Consider.”

Recruit and retain high-quality educators and leaders in K-12 and postsecondary education who are demographically representative of their student populations. One of the more critical interventions for educational success is a high-quality K-12 teacher who is also culturally attentive to students’ needs and goals. A majority of students in public K-12 schools and public institutions of higher education are students of color, yet K-12 and postsecondary teachers and administrators remain overwhelmingly White. Postsecondary programs should recruit, retain, and graduate a growing diversity of teachers for the growing diversity of the student population. To keep students engaged and increase college enrollment and success, postsecondary institutions can recruit teachers who are racially similar to students and experienced with serving diverse populations. Policymakers and postsecondary institutions can also attract new teachers from an increasingly diverse high school graduate population through scholarships and decent wages that make teaching a sustainable professional choice.

Augment and use high-quality, inclusive data to make decisions in the K-12, postsecondary, and workforce sectors. The State Higher Education Executive Officers Association provides information regarding reliable, detailed, state-level data sets for the K-12, postsecondary, and workforce sectors that can be used to develop educational interventions for teachers, students, employers, and institutions. Ensuring that state data sets also incorporate information on demographic characteristics related to areas health, justice, and voting can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of assessment and practice to achieve educational equity. Such integration of data will provide a greater range of metrics related to inequality and build on areas where states and the nation as a whole have done well. While college success is probably the most effective intervention for increasing equity and reducing inequality, incorporating high-quality, integrated, multisectoral data can provide an understanding of how to innovate interventions for the future. Such data can also help policymakers understand how long the effects of an intervention last, identify the best locations and conditions in which to intervene, and determine how to sustain effective practices and suspend harmful ones.

For more information on using state and institutional data to inform decision-making, see Using Statewide Learning Agendas to Foster Equity and Success in Postsecondary Education.

Engagement in educational equity requires an understanding of indicators across and within states that characterize inequity and lack of opportunity, so that decision-makers can apply efficient, effective public policies and resources to improve postsecondary completion for all students by investing in the most underserved. It requires addressing differences in educational starting points that result from income, race or ethnicity, gender, language proficiency, and other sources of privilege over which students have no control. Thus, an equal assignment of educational resources is not enough to improve completion rates. Achieving equity for postsecondary success is a societal gain overall, not a mere chance for individual opportunity. Increased college participation and completion lead to greater wages and reduced crime within communities even for those who have not graduated from high school.

These solutions and investments may differ across states based on population demography and history. New York may require different solutions than those that may implemented in Texas, but centering equity in the design of effective educational policy should be a foundational practice.

Ultimately, no postsecondary institutional system operates on its own, and state contexts, including their K-12 educational systems, influence families’ well-being and their opportunities in postsecondary education. In sum, policymakers need to create more effective policy and practices for educational success with the principles of equity at their center.

[1]For more information on these barriers, see also John Bound, Michael F. Lovenheim, and Sarah Turner, “Why Have College Completion Rates Declined? An Analysis of Changing Student Preparation and Collegiate Resources,” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 2, 3 (2010): 129–157; Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege (Washington, DC: Georgetown Public Policy Institute, 2013); Susan Dynarski and Judith Scott-Clayton, “Financial Aid Policy: Lessons from Research,” The Future of Children 23, 1 (2013): 67–91; Mark Hoekstra, “The Effect of Attending the Flagship State University on Earnings: A Discontinuity-Based Approach,” Review of Economics and Statistics 91, 4 (2009): 717–724; Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery, “The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2013); and Bridget Terry Long and Erin Riley, “Financial Aid: A Broken Bridge to College Access,” Harvard Educational Review 77, 1 (2007): 39–63.

[2]For examples of such policies, see Stella M. Flores, Tim Carroll, and Suzanne M. Lyons, “Beyond the Tipping Point: Searching for a New Vision for Latino College Success in the United States,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 696, 1 (2021): 128–155; Stella M. Flores, Toby J. Park, Samantha L. Viano, and Vanessa M. Coca, “State Policy and the Educational Outcomes of English Learner and Immigrant Students: Three Administrative Data Stories,” American Behavioral Scientist 61, 14 (2017): 1,824–1,844; and Mark C. Long, Dylan Conger, and Patrice Iatarola, “Effects of High School Course-Taking on Secondary and Postsecondary Success,” American Educational Research Journal 49, 2 (2012): 285–322.


Stella M. Flores is an associate professor of higher education and public policy at the University of Texas at Austin. Before her faculty role, she worked in various capacities at the local, state, and federal government levels.