Kentucky’s colleges and universities have made progress toward closing the education gap for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds and making their campuses more inclusive. Still, there is much room for improvement. To that end, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) implemented a new Policy for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in 2018, applicable to state universities and the Kentucky Community & Technical College System (KCTCS).

The policy requires institutional leaders to create plans specific to their campus, to ensure that goals are attainable, focused on three key areas of improvement: Recruitment and enrollment of diverse students; Student progression and success; and Campus climate, inclusiveness and cultural competency. The Council scores progress annually on both quantitative and qualitative elements. If a campus does not score well, it will not be able to offer new degree programs.

At the CPE Council meeting in June, the Committee on Equal Opportunities presented results of its first comprehensive review of campus progress tied to the Kentucky Policy for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. I’m pleased to share that, overwhelmingly, the reports showed that campuses were implementing their strategies with fidelity. We saw significant overall improvement in the success of our underrepresented minority population and some overall improvement with our low-income population.

The policy’s annual reporting format includes quantitative measurements of progress in the following areas:

  • Undergraduate and graduate enrollment of underrepresented minorities.
  • Graduation rates of underrepresented minority and low-income students.
  • Degrees and credentials awarded to underrepresented minority and low-income students.
  • Diversity of the campus workforce.
  • Reporting also includes a new qualitative narrative – a “lessons learned” section – that requires each campus to reflect on its progress in each area and discuss any changes they plan to make moving forward as a result.

Examples of campuses that stood out for their strategies for improvement:

Henderson Community College (HCC) – The campus’ goal was to increase visibility into the community. Staff worked with community leaders to gauge opinions of the campus’ diversity efforts and followed with an event targeted to attract African American and Hispanic residents. While increased community involvement helped attract African American students, HCC will ramp up its efforts for Hispanic students, who are a growing demographic in the service region.

Hazard Community and Technical College (HCTC) – In order to improve retention, HCTC shifted to a more personalized approach to advising, which featured more mentoring of minority students, as well as completion of an individualized completion (or graduation) plan. This helped both students and advisors track progress to graduation, as well as alert the advisors when a student was off track.

Northern Kentucky University (NKU) – The campus engaged 65 students, faculty and staff to serve on committees to develop NKU’s 2022 Inclusive Excellence Plan and metrics. To strengthen diversity efforts of the individual colleges, the campus implemented unit-level “inclusive excellence plans” that aligned with the university’s overarching plan. These plans helped focus efforts on marketing and communications to a variety of student demographics.

The policy introduced a new, broader definition of diversity, promoting the varied human characteristics, ideas, world views, and backgrounds of all people. During the plan development and review process, this new definition challenged campuses to reflect upon how they not only serve these various student groups, but also how they create culturally competent students, faculty and staff.

Kentucky is the only state in the nation to tie new academic program approval to outcomes of campus progress toward equal educational opportunity goals. Campuses not making sufficient progress toward these goals will work with the Committee on Equal Opportunities to develop plans and timelines for improvement.

Through the policy development and reporting process, we also learned some lessons as to how a statewide policy plays out on Kentucky’s campuses. The analysis of strategy effectiveness and lessons learned were not as robust as we had hoped in some instances, and through our own reflection, we realized that providing training to the campuses on our expectations in this regard and how reports could be best written would have been of significant value. We are working to develop this training now so that we may provide it in the fall.

Continuous improvement is the ultimate goal. In today’s fiscal environment, it is extremely important to ensure that we are allocating resources to the best ways possible. Through reflection, campuses can make informed decisions on whether or not a strategy should be continued, expanded, redesigned or completely discontinued. The only way to improve on anything you do is through reflection. We wanted to make sure to build this into the annual review process, not only for the sake of the campus implementing the strategy, but also for staff from other campuses who can learn from these experiences.  The thoughtfulness and desire to do good work in these areas was clearly present, and the fact that we are systematically capturing it is a win for the state.

The policy’s addition of equity and inclusion takes campus diversity to the next step of creating an open and accepting environment that aids student success. Equity ensures that all have equal access to our institutions and academic programs. Inclusion ensures that, once access is provided and students are on our campuses, they are in an environment where they can be comfortable regardless of their background. It is very difficult to be successful and focus on the challenge that is a college curriculum unless you are in a place where you feel supported.  With equal opportunity and an inclusive environment, we are confident that the rates of success for all students will improve, particularly those of our historically underserved populations.

Travis Powell is Vice President and General Counsel at the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. Powell directly oversees the Council’s areas of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.