The promise of higher ed’s ‘Equity Agenda’

Progress has been made, but much work remains

AT STANFORD UNIVERSITY on April 14, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “The Other America” speech. In it, Dr. King spoke about a bifurcated country: one part “overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity,” and the other that “transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.”

Even five and a half decades later, this divide persists. For example, Massachusetts prides itself on being the education state and is home to some of the finest colleges and universities in the world. Our Commonwealth has the highest percentage of its population with advanced degrees. But the data show that this success is not equally shared. Indeed, higher education access and attainment gaps remain sharply divided along racial and ethnic lines.

As of March 2022, White women in Massachusetts were 49 percentage points more likely to have a college degree than Latinx men, and among Latinx men, only 23 percent possessed a college degree.

Even after controlling for students’ financial resources, we see that Black and Latinx students with no unmet financial needs trail White students who require financial assistance to access college. Race and ethnicity are significant factors in higher education outcomes.

Four years ago, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education adopted the Equity Agenda. This initiative represents a single, overarching goal: to arrive at a day when race no longer impacts one’s outcomes in Massachusetts public higher education. This agenda operates from an expectation that, by elevating equity, critically examining policies and practices, and working to dismantle structural barriers, the Commonwealth’s public higher education will enhance the economic and social mobility for all citizens – particularly for those that have historically been underserved and underrepresented, like students of color – throughout all levels of education.

Several months ago, I announced that I would be stepping down as the commissioner of higher education.While I am appreciative of and grateful for the positive feedback the Equity Agenda and my work to advance it has received, I am acutely aware of how much work still needs to be done. The Equity Agenda will have achieved success when we see the number of Black, Latinx and AAPI students receiving higher education degrees increasing at equal rates to their white counterparts. Until that time, the Equity Agenda will remain an aspiration that we, as leaders in higher education, must continue to pursue.

Public higher education institutions have embraced this work and laid the groundwork for the Equity Agenda’s success. The first significant achievement of the Equity Agenda is the launch of the Department of Higher Education’s Performance Measurement Review System (PMRS) in 2019, which provides insight into how successfully public higher education institutions are addressing the educational needs of traditionally underserved populations. Community colleges and state universities can see how they compare to their peers both in Massachusetts and nationally on metrics such as access and affordability, student success and completion, and demographic-based outcomes. By knowing how they stack up, our institutions can take steps that will move them closer to the goal of equity.

I am profoundly optimistic about the future of the Equity Agenda because of the shared commitment to its implementation by our public colleges and universities and the Commonwealth’s policymakers. Over the past several years, investments made by the Baker-Polito Administration and the Legislature have supported public higher education and a willingness to examine the fundamental structures of that system.

As I approach the conclusion of my time as commissioner, I must acknowledge the privilege to do the work of the Equity Agenda in Massachusetts, where there is support from crucial policymakers and elected officials. As we attempt to face head-on the injustice of the two Americas that Dr. King spoke of, we must recognize that the Equity Agenda is a promise that must be kept.

Dr. Carlos Santiago has been Massachusetts’ higher education commissioner since 2015.