June 21, 2019

A More Equitable Student Experience

brightspot Culture

by Elliot Felix

Our Mission: A More Engaging and Equitable Student Experience

At brightspot, we’re on a mission to transform the student experience with smart strategy that connects people, programs, and places — on campus and online. By enabling active learning, creating seamless student services, supporting purpose-driven student projects, and fostering more connected communities, we’re making the student experience more engaging and more equitable. We’re also committed to working internally to build a more diverse and inclusive team of brightspotters.

Why this mission?

We’re on this mission because higher education is facing unprecedented social, demographic, technological, and economic shifts. It’s also facing unprecedented challenges to ensuring affordable access, enabling student success, and achieving real-world impact.

If higher education is to continue to be an engine of opportunity, if we want a functioning democracy, and if we want people to live healthy and fulfilling lives, then we need to make higher education work better for everyone – in particular students of color, first-generation students, and low income students.

These students face greater challenges of access, navigation, and opportunity that arise from socio-economic inequities that are systemic – inequities that are increased when institutions design their programs and places around yesterday’s students, not today’s students. The demographics of today’s students have changed. Nationally, 42% are students of color, 46% are first-generation students, 37% of students are over the age of 25 and more low-income students now enroll in college than their middle income peers.

Data on the problems we need to address are all around us. Students of color attending predominantly white institutions (PWIs) are 6 to 16% less likely to graduate on time than their peers at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In the last 30 years, tuition at private non-profit colleges has gone up 2.3 times and at public, four-year institutions and it’s gone up 3.1 times. In 1980, 30 year-olds had an 80% chance of earning more than their parents, but now that’s down to 50%. Only 59% of first-time students graduate within six years at four-year institutions. From brightspot’s Student Experience Snapshot, we know only 55% of students have a positive view of their community, first-generation students are 10% less likely to feel like they belong, and students of color are 18% less likely to play leadership roles on campus.

We’re committed to addressing these problems, by working with inspiring institutions, using an inclusive, participatory consulting process, and using strategies that have been proven to help all students – and first-gen, low income, and underrepresented students more.

Working with institutions committed to access, equity, and excellence

We are working with institutions that are committed to not only access and equity but excellence as well. We have worked for six of the ten selective institutions admitting the most low-income students, including UCLA, Emory University, Barnard College, NYU, University of Miami, and MIT. In the last five years, brightspot worked with 57 institutions whose collective annual undergraduate student enrollment totals 1,039,898 FTE students. Of these students, collectively 31% are students of color and 25% are low income students. 21 of these 57 institutions are “I’m First” designated institutions that place a high value on admitting and supporting first-generation students. Recently, our clients include institutions like Central Piedmont Community College, Chabot College, Normandale Community College, and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Using an inclusive process to engage all stakeholders

We use an inclusive process to engage stakeholders – students, faculty, staff, alumni, partners, and neighbors – to co-create their future with us. Through interviews, workshops, town hall meetings, surveys, and feedback fairs, we are working together to understand the current state, envision an ideal future, and understand how programs, people, and places have to change to get there. As part of this process, we are also conducting outreach to meet people where they are; for instance conducting workshops in spaces owned and run by the groups we aim to reach and doing on the spot interviews around the campus to make sure we heard a diversity of people and perspectives. During the process, we are focused on uncovering addressing system inequities; for instance, the way student services are often designed based on two false assumptions: students know what help is available to them and are able to ask for the help they need.

Using strategies proven to help students of color, low income students, and first-gen students

We use this inclusive, participatory process to find the best ways to use strategies that have been proven to help all students and help low income students, first-generation students, and students of color even more. This includes enabling active learning so that students learn from and teach peers while working on real-world projects that inspire them; for instance, NC State found that compared to traditional instruction, their SCALE-UP active learning classrooms reduced failure rates by 71% for African American students vs. 64% for all students. It also means creating one-stop-shop student services; for instance, the Community College of Philadelphia found that graduation rates for first-time students who used the one-stop were 6% higher than non-users.

What’s next: a more diverse team

To better fulfill our mission, brightspot is committed to increasing the diversity of our team in terms of race and experience. We need to better relate to today’s students. We need to better reflect the communities we serve. We need more diverse perspectives that lead to better ideas. With a more diverse team, we’ll be a better performing company, and that will help us scale our impact for all our clients.

We know the only way to lead is by example. We have a transparent operating model in which we share our financials, discussions, and decisions. We are committed to learning and development and have offered coaching to employees from day one. We have a transparent salary ladder to ensure our compensation is equitable. Our team is mostly women, including in leadership roles. We have an external advisory board to hold us accountable. A more diverse, inclusive, and equitable team in terms of race and background is where we need to go next.

This starts by reflecting on who we are, what we do, how we do it, and recognizing our limitations, biases, and flaws. It builds by doing the work internally to develop our team and address these gaps while building on the strength of our organizational culture such as our commitment to learning and to supporting each other. It builds further by creating a student advisory council who can share their perspective and hold us accountable. Then, it builds further by recruiting future brightspotters who share this commitment and can join us to better fulfill our mission because of what they are passionate about, who they are, and where they come from.

We’ll be sharing our progress as we go. Watch this space for updates and join us in making the student experience more engaging and equitable!

Related articles