ED Outlines Updated Strategies to Increase Diversity in Higher Education

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter

The Department of Education (ED) last week released a report outlining strategies states and higher education leaders can take to promote college diversity, with the intention of providing institutions up to date resources to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s (SCOTUS) recent decision to strike down race-conscious admission policies. 

The 66-page report outlines several strategies and practices in the areas of outreach, admissions, financial aid, and college completion that state and higher education leaders can use to consider how they can increase socioeconomic and racial diversity in colleges. 

ED stated that this report “answers President [Joe] Biden’s charge” to ED to share practices that build inclusive and diverse student bodies after SCOTUS ruled that race can not be considered in college and university admissions, and builds on the department’s resources that were made available earlier this summer.

In the report Education Secretary Miguel Cardona wrote that following the court’s decision, colleges and universities lost a “vital tool for creating vibrant, diverse campus communities.” However, Cardona said ED’s report “makes clear” that institutions must not lose their “commitment to equal opportunity and student body diversity.”

“We have seen what can happen when states ban affirmative action: fewer students of color apply, and fewer students of color are admitted, particularly to selective institutions,” Cardona wrote in the report. “We cannot afford this kind of backsliding on a national scale, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in plummeting college enrollments nationwide.”

Some of the strategies ED highlighted to increase diversity include; targeted recruitment and outreach to K-12 schools, community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and other minority-serving institutions; “meaningful” consideration in admissions to adversity students have faced; and providing “comprehensive” support programs for students that increase retention and completion rates.

In terms of financial aid, ED listed several strategies that include increasing college affordability and creating transparency in the FAFSA application process. 

For example, ED urged state leaders to consider ways states can support institutions’ enrollment of underserved students by; providing “sufficient and direct” funding to higher education institutions; reviewing state financial aid and benefits eligibility requirements and enrollment processes; and strengthening relationships across K–12 schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions to create stronger statewide postsecondary pathways.

“Direct appropriations to institutions can reduce or eliminate tuition, or they can enable institutions to invest in their need-based aid programs,” ED wrote in the report. “Reducing college costs is also critical to ensure that students enroll and persist in higher education.” 

ED noted that HBCUs and tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) have historically been underfunded by states, with a majority of states providing no funding to TCUs at all. 

“Despite being underfunded and under-resourced, HBCUs have been essential to providing higher education opportunity to Black students and other students of color,” ED wrote. “They have also had a significant economic impact for their alumni and the economy.”

The report also touched on using need-based aid as a strategy to increase diversity. Institutions could consider creating need-based aid programs that “encompass the full spectrum of student need,” such as evaluating both parental income and wealth and accounting for gaps in federal and state eligibility. ED stressed that need-based aid increases enrollment, persistence, and completion in higher education. 

However, according to ED, research suggests that almost half of financial aid provided today at public universities goes to students who do not need financial support and universities are increasing non-need based aid faster than they do need-based aid.

“Need-based programs, including no-loan initiatives and other grant funding for students that base eligibility or aid levels on the student’s demonstrated financial capability, should strive to eliminate or reduce student debt for low-income students,” ED wrote in the report. “Ultimately, institutions should work to ensure they are meeting the full need of underserved students and that students are not penalized in the admissions process because of their ability to pay.”

Another strategy to increase diversity and opportunity in higher education is through free-tuition programs, which are also known as “college promise” programs and typically offer a tuition-free guarantee to students within a specified state or locale. 

ED also recommends institutions and state leaders consider how to improve the financial aid application processes for students. ED noted that with FAFSA simplification, the new 2024-25 FAFSA will include a more streamlined application process, expanded eligibility for federal student aid, and a new user experience for the FAFSA form. States and institutions could also consider how to simplify forms that college applicants are required to submit, ED wrote. 

Another strategy is for institutions to work with students and families to ensure they are able to review their financial aid offers and understand what they are offered. Just last week, The College Cost Transparency Initiative (CCT) announced that over 300 institutions have voluntarily committed to follow its set of principles and standards for the financial aid offers they communicate to undergraduate students.

“Financial aid offers should be clear, easily understandable, and adequately reflect all costs, including non-tuition costs, associated with attending the institution,” ED wrote.

The report from ED comes as the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Subcommittee recently held a hearing about how the SCOTUS decision on race-conscious admissions is impacting institutions’ admissions policies. 

While the hearing focused mainly on admission policies, David Hinojosa, director of the Educational Opportunities Project of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, noted that increasing funding for the federal Pell Grant can serve as a way to increase equity in higher education. 

“Universities can do their part by instituting comprehensive reforms, including race neutral programs, recruitment and outreach and student support, as well as deconstructing systemic barriers,” Hinojosa said. “But we need Congress to do its part in helping to bring unity, opportunity and justice for all.”


Publication Date: 10/4/2023

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