Educational Opportunity Opened the Doors to My Future. We Must Champion Equity So That All Students Have the Chance to Thrive.
By Dr. Richard Daniel
Looking back on the educational upheaval caused by the pandemic – and ahead to an uncertain future for schools, colleges, and universities – one thing is clear. The ways in which this crisis has affected the entire education continuum and severely burdened students, families, and educators. The educational crisis has been especially severe for students who were already at a disadvantage, and, historically, have been underserved by our schools and underrepresented in our state’s colleges and universities. It also threatens to undo what progress we have made in Arizona over the past several decades to increase educational equity and opportunity.
As a first-generation Latino college student from rural Arizona, and as someone who has spent a career in higher education championing efforts to expand opportunities for students from underserved and underrepresented backgrounds, seeing such opportunities diminished hits close to home for me.
I am a product of Arizona’s public education system, after all, and it was my good fortune that that system afforded me an exceptional education. It also provided me with the opportunity to attend and graduate from Arizona State University. These are opportunities that not all students from my background have access to.
Little did I know that my experience at ASU would also set me on the career path that has since been defined by a focus on increasing access, equity, inclusion, and attainment. When I was an undergraduate at ASU, I served as a peer advisor in the university’s newly created Minority Assistance Program. The program was designed to help students like me – from backgrounds and populations underrepresented at ASU – successfully navigate the transition to ASU and persist to completion of their degrees. At the time, programs like this were uncommon and this experience providing peer mentoring and assistance was when I first began to understand the power of these kinds of supports designed specifically and intentionally to increase educational access and equity. It also spoke to me on a cultural level. In our Latino community, it goes without saying that those who are in a position to do so lend a hand to those who need it and those who have found success will work to create opportunities for others.
This ethos is especially resonant and especially important now, in the context of the pandemic. Despite some progress and the dedication of many individual organizations in the state, Arizona still struggles to ensure that all students have the chance to go to and succeed in college if they wish to do so. Too many students who are economically disadvantaged, first-generation, people of color, or from rural communities still do not have the same kinds of postsecondary opportunities and supports as their white or more affluent peers.
The pandemic has illuminated many of the long-present shortcomings of our education system that contribute to inequity, including insufficient academic preparation, a dire counselor shortage, and inadequate access to information about college, to name just a few. The pandemic has also made these preexisting inequities more pronounced.
Recently, College Success Arizona released its newest issue brief, “Educational Equity and Opportunity Gaps: The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Increased the Need To Strengthen Supports for Arizona Students.” This brief presents information and insights that can help advance efforts in Arizona to understand how the pandemic affects educational equity as it pertains to college access and college success.
The disproportionate effects of the pandemic also show why it is so important for policymakers to recognize that providing our low-income, first-generation, underrepresented students with robust supports – financial, advising, and otherwise – is essential to enabling them to fully realize their aspirations and develop the necessary talent, motivation and experiences which leads to a more robust quality of life.
If Arizona expects to reach its attainment goal of 60 percent by 2030, a goal that has broad cross-sector support, then we must recommit to investing in all students and at every level, from early childhood through postsecondary. In so doing, we can help to mitigate the damages of the pandemic and ensure more students will have the chance to succeed in school, go to college, and benefit from the economic mobility and prosperity that college attainment can afford them.
Dr. Richard Daniel is the Executive Vice President and COO of College Success Arizona where he directs the organization’s research and policy activities.