The University of Texas at Austin’s Holistic Approach to Enhancing Academic Equity
Hear Dr. Eric Dieter, Executive Director of the Longhorn Center for Academic Equity at UT Austin, share his approach to enhancing student access and equity.
Dr. Eric Dieter is Executive Director of the Longhorn Center for Academic Equity at the University of Texas at Austin where he leads a variety of student success initiatives. Recently, he participated in an exclusive panel interview with Kaplan university partners, sharing his insights on:
Higher education’s increasing focus on workforce readiness.
The importance of building partnerships.
The future ripple effects of the pandemic on students.
The following excerpts are taken from the interview.
Tell us about the University of Texas at Austin and what you’re most excited about right now.
The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) is one of the largest undergraduate and graduate institutions in the country. We're a R1 (Research One) institution with around 40,000 undergraduates and 11,000 graduate students.1 My department on campus is the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, or DDCE, which is designed to help all kinds of students across campus in different ways. Our Center, the Longhorn Center for Academic Equity is a student-centric center designed to provide three big pools of support: 1) academic support, 2) professional support, and 3) personal support.
There are a variety of programs that check those different boxes. I direct our College-to-Career initiatives, with programs that help students think about, once they transition out of college, what's going to come next for them, and how do they learn about it? And asking those questions early enough to make informed decisions about whether or not it's a good decision for them. Then, once they've settled on a decision, do they have good, effective, efficient, concrete plans in place to get them where they need to go?
College is weird because students come out of high school, and it's one of the biggest transitions of their life. Then there's about four to five years, a short period of time, in which they have, in some ways, an even more significant transition. At UT Austin, and in higher education in general, we talk about this. We’re thinking more explicitly and emphatically about the transition from undergraduate to whatever comes next.
A lot of what we're doing at UT Austin is really trying to think about how we get students prepared for what comes next, so that they go on with eyes wide open. And they're ready to hit the ground running, whether they are pursuing law school, medical school, graduate programs for a Ph.D., or whatever it is that they want.
Career readiness is a growing conversation around higher education. How are you infusing career readiness into the student experience?
We have to think about bringing in and supporting as many first-generation college students as possible. At UT Austin, currently around 25 percent of the undergraduate population qualifies as first-generation. Then you have to think about Pell eligibility as well, and the different kinds of support that students who are Pell-eligible might need relative to students who are not Pell-eligible.
Building multi-institutional partnerships is also really important. UT Austin is a predominately white institution (PWI), even though we recently also became a Hispanic-serving institution and an Asian American Pacific Islander-serving institution, we are still primarily a PWI. So, reaching out to programs and institutions around us, like Huston-Tillotson University, the local HBCU in Austin, or Austin Community College, and making sure we're building good partnerships with them is important. That way, when students are transferring from school to school, or even if there's something that's happening on one campus, we can open up access to students at other campuses.
“Ultimately, what a lot of our programming does is focus on anything we can do to imagine fit, so when we talk to students about going into law school or medical school or a Ph.D. program, we're really good about using this language of ‘good fit.’”
You need to set up criteria by which you can evaluate whether or not a program is a good fit for you. Some of that's academic, but some of that might be demographic. Some of that might be geographic. Some of that is financial. Whatever the criteria are, we are good at training students to evaluate the potential value of an academic or professional opportunity.
As a whole, I'm not sure that higher education is as good at training students to think about their careers in the same way as they would pick a law school, a medical school, or a Ph.D. program. Who's going to pay you the most right out of the gate seems to be the number one criterion, which is not unimportant, but shouldn’t necessarily be the only criterion. If a student is going to be miserable, our job should be the reduction of misery. It is hard enough transitioning from college into the rest of your life for the next 50 to 60 years, without having this added misery of getting a job just because you got the biggest paycheck and there were no other criteria that you were really trained or encouraged to think about when you try to pick a job.
The other thing is students probably need to be taught better how to talk about their intellectual habits and how they translate. Students who walk out of college have all kinds of skills. Part of the job here is for their employers to understand how those things translate, and students can do a better job of talking about less-obvious skills that translate. There is a perception that students in certain disciplines, usually humanities, are not going to be as competitive in the job market. The numbers don't really bear that out; humanities students do quite well. Part of that is because they can talk about certain skills or habits of mind that they’ve developed, like comfort with ambiguity, learning how to learn, figuring out how to isolate a problem, then coming up with steps to do a solution. There are things that you are taught when you are reading novels that translate to doing work for a tech company or for a financial firm, but sometimes it's less obvious than when I learned how to do mass spectrometry and now that's what I'm going to do as a profession. Getting them to really understand what it is that they're learning and that they're doing things that are applicable skills, but sometimes they need to extrapolate and highlight it or put a spotlight on it.
You recently launched Kaplan’s All Access License at UT Austin. Can you share why you chose to pursue this? Why was it a priority for you to provide students with free access to test prep?
Last year was our first year with Kaplan’s All Access License, and we had 150 spots for LSAT®, MCAT®, and GRE®, and we gave all 150 away to students. Around 75 percent of those students were first-generation and about 79 percent of them are Pell-eligible. It was pretty evenly split between all three of those exams, but probably leaned towards GRE® and LSAT®. The total savings was just shy of $212,000.2
This year we ballooned to offering 350 spots, and we'll have no problem using them. We're a month in and we've already used about 10 percent. The word is out on our campus, and we're making a lot of good friends with students who have postgraduate interests. We're also making a lot of good friends with our colleagues and other colleges and schools and all their academic student support units and other co-curricular units. It's been a way to build relationships across campus, and I think that's going to lead to even further growth which leads to more savings to students.
We have a McNair Scholars program at UT Austin. McNair Scholars is a federally funded program through the U.S. Department of Education. There are a lot of regulatory boundaries around who's eligible for McNair, including citizenship, and we knew that there were more students we could serve with postgraduate preparation than we could bring into McNair.
So we started a program about a year ago called Strive Grad Prep Academy, or Strive GPA. One piece of that—an important piece of that—is the partnership with Kaplan, and the capacity to offer no cost test prep to students, with a priority on first-generation, Pell-eligible students. The Kaplan course is a way to attract students to the Center. There's a whole ecosystem of preparing students to apply, get accepted, transition, be successful, and persist through graduation into graduate programs and professional degrees. In that process, the exams take on an outsized importance for most students. They over-contextualize the value of the score within the holistic application process.
“We want to bring them into the Center and take the cost off their plate, because that is a barrier.”
The cost of the test prep can be overly high for some students. We do also have a pool of funding to offer exam fee support to students who need it. But then, once they're in the program, we can say, okay, we're going to take this piece away from you, plus, we're going to explain to you how it fits into a larger holistic application process. And we can provide other sorts of graduate studies literacy, such as the importance of the statement of purpose, how to craft a personal statement, how do you build a relationship with faculty so that one, you can get a good letter of recommendation and two, you can start doing the kind of networking that successful people are good at doing.
Part of what we want to do with Kaplan’s All Access License is reduce cost, reduce barriers, but also get students in the door so we can start getting them a larger set of information through the Strive GPA program about how do you prepare for this difficult thing that you're going to do. It’s about helping them understand the value of the test prep in that process and understanding the value of the exams in this process, and to treat them seriously and to be as prepared as possible so you maximize your competitiveness.
Looking forward five years from now, what do you think is higher education’s biggest opportunity for student success?
I think universities need to get better, and are getting better, at being promiscuous and ecumenical partners, partnering with everybody: across campus, industry/campus partnerships, but also between campuses, and then between public and private institutions, and between local governments and state governments and federal governments—partnerships all over the place. They've always been there, but I think we're seeing more innovative versions of collaboration, and I think Kaplan’s All Access License is an example of that.
In the next 5 to 50 years, we’ll see the ripple effects of the pandemic. There's a reason that our grandparents who grew up during the Depression kept money in a coffee can on their shelves the rest of their lives. I don't think we'll really know the full impact of COVID for a generation, or even longer. There will be behaviors that current students are starting to exhibit that will stick around. What those impacts are and the challenges and opportunities that come along with them, that's a conversation that’s going to be ongoing.
One behavior that seems to be positive is that students—and this is anecdotal with my experience so I'm editorializing a little bit—are doing a better job of living whole-person lives. They're also working too hard, and they overestimate the consequences of making mistakes. They do a lot of things that are way too hard on themselves, and higher education professionals need to try to ameliorate that as best we can with our programming and our support and our guidance. But the fact that they're even asking questions about, “is this going to harm me mentally?” or, “how do I put this thing into a larger kind of whole-person landscape so that I'm not subsuming my life to work?” I think that these are good questions, and I wonder if the pandemic had some impact on that. And I hope that we follow their lead and take some of that on and build it into our curriculum as we start building these programs.
And then, of course, we’ll keep quickening and deepening the conversation around equity and access. I'm glad we're talking about this more than we have in the past, or that we're talking about in different ways than we have in the past, and I hope we continue to talk about it. Those are some of the opportunities and challenges that we're going to face in the coming years.
Watch the full interview.
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1 Enrollment source: National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2022
2 Student savings based on advertised price per online course in the first year.