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Using Innovation to Increase Equity and Accessibility in Higher Education

Photo: Courtesy of Nathan Dumlao

Dr. Kristen Renn

Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies for Student Success Research, Michigan State University

Colleges and universities are grappling with a series of challenges, including how to handle COVID-19 safety, accessibility, and economics, as well as racial and social equity. Now’s the time to face these combined crises.

Dr. Kristen Renn, associate dean of undergraduate studies for student success research at Michigan State University, calls the economic, public health, and equality and equity concerns, a “perfect storm together.”

“The idea we can come through this clearly business-as-usual is not going to work anymore,” she says.

Unsustainable business model

Financially, higher education is hurting. During the pandemic, colleges can’t rely on higher tuitions paid by out-of-state and international students. 

Another challenge is how many students go to college. Internationally, higher education programs are heavily subsidized publicly, but not all students go to college. In comparison, In the United States, more students attend college but they often rely on loans, grants, and family financial assistance to do so. 

“COVID has made it completely clear,” said Dr. Renn. “U.S. higher education does not have a sustainable business model, whether it’s private, very tuition-dependent and cannot increase that forever, or public, dependent on tuition and somewhat on state funding increasing.”

Problem solving

Throughout her career, Dr. Renn has researched student success and persistence; mixed race college students; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues in higher education; and women in higher education in the United States and global contexts.

She says there’s a lot of excitement in the multi-disciplinary work that includes looking at sociology, economics, and psychology.

“What I see in the field is people studying real problems to try to improve the lives of individuals, but also the whole sector of higher education,” she said. “So whether it is studying public finance or higher education outcomes from college, student experience in college, it’s wide ranging. There’s a lot of people throwing a lot of things at a whole lot of problems at once, which is one of the ways we can find solutions.”

Good social science research

When it comes to solving the many challenging issues they’re facing, higher education leaders have to sharpen and focus their attention. They may need to tap into the idea of “never waste a crisis.”

Dr. Renn says institutional leaders need to turn to social science education researchers and ask what they can do when they reform, including budget models, how they run their organization, how they develop curriculum, how they maintain equity and access, and more tough questions.

“I think that there’s opportunity to drill down and use good social science research to try to solve real problems,” she said. “We do have the attention of the chancellors and presidents in ways we haven’t always had it.”

Universities have struggled with many of these issues and others over the years, but Dr. Renn says things feel “a little different right now.” That could mean significant changes in thed long term, if opportunities are seized.  

“There are a lot of people who’ve been researching equity in higher education for a long time, who have been trying to get some purpose and trying to get some momentum going. But it’s always been seen as like an add-on,” Dr. Renn said. “I think that what we’re seeing more recently is baked in, like inequity and racism are baked into our universities. So as we are putting ourselves back together, how do we build that into the fabric more and how do we reckon with our racist past?”

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