By Linda Garza Battles, WGU Texas Chancellor
Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) has quickly become a business buzzword, with more companies piloting initiatives to create a more equitable workforce. While the intent of these programs is honorable, many fail to acknowledge the systemic societal factors leading to the lack of DEI—our education system.
To achieve our diversity goals in the workforce, we must first create a diverse student body.
Diversity supports new ideas and provides different perspectives in the workplace, leading to higher productivity and worker performance. Outside of an office setting, workplace diversity substantially impacts our society as a whole.
For example, we need diverse healthcare workers to help combat institutional medical racism. A 2016 study found that 73% of white medical students held at least one false belief about a race’s biological differences which can lead to inadequate care, premature deaths and distrust in the medical system. As the ones training the next generation of workers, it is up to higher education institutions to find ways to increase diversity among enrollees and graduates.
A lack of diversity is felt across industries and sectors. The impacts are especially prominent in our schools. Without diverse teachers, students may struggle to imagine their future in college. Elementary and secondary public-school teachers in the United States are considerably less racially and ethnically diverse as a group than their students. With a lack of diversity in the education workforce, students of color are left without leaders who can relate to their experiences.
Unfortunately, the racial gaps in higher education are getting wider. For example, the gap between white Americans with degrees and black Americans with degrees is now 20 percentage points. In comparison, the gap between white Americans and Hispanic Americans increased to 25 percentage points over the past decade.
Many higher education institutions have begun offering more flexibility to ensure colleges and universities embrace diversity. Education models must adapt to meet the needs of modern-day students, and educational institutions must create pathways to opportunity by actively identifying and eliminating barriers that prevent the full participation of any group.
Over the past three years, COVID-19 highlighted the disparities in our education system. Amongst other factors, Texas’s current education system does not support students who must work full-time jobs, care for children or are unable to attend live lectures.
Rather than evaluating students based on time spent in the classroom, higher education should move to models such as Competency-Based Education (CBE). By allowing students to progress through courses at their own pace and on their own schedule, CBE creates opportunities for those who previously saw education as a barrier to the workforce. CBE meets students where they are in life and creates pathways for students who work full-time jobs, have children or need the flexibility of a self-paced online schedule. By expanding the population of students able to complete their degrees, our workforce begins to reflect our population with individuals from diverse backgrounds.
Students deserve a flexible and affordable education that supports them in their journey and meets them where they are in life. Our workforce becomes more robust as colleges and universities create systems that support diversity in their populations by removing institutional barriers and blocks.
February marks Black History Month, a time to reflect on the incredible contributions of the African American community. We must evaluate how our institutions can promote diversity. Our education system needs to progress and not only allow but encourage diversity. Colleges and universities must begin to build a robust and diverse foundation for our workforce. This goal can be met by breaking down archaic institutional barriers and moving towards more inclusive education models. Competency-based education is one of those inclusive models. It encourages diversity and student success.