The Equity Scorecard™: Balancing Educational Outcomes

Estela Mara Bensimon

Estela Mara Bensimon

The USC Rossier Center for Urban Education (CUE) is a leading research center, one of Rossier’s oldest and busiest, and is dedicated to developing tools that colleges and universities can use to achieve equitable and successful outcomes for students from racial and ethnic groups that are underrepresented in higher education. Its unique success and effectiveness comes from the fact that it both conducts research and puts that research into practice. CUE has now formed nearly 100 partnerships with state higher education systems and institutions in 10 states. These college and university partners vary from private, selective four-year universities to open access two-year colleges. CUE is under the direction of Professor Estela Mara Bensimon, who founded the center in 1999, and Associate Professor Alicia C. Dowd.

Alicia Dowd

Alicia Dowd

The challenges facing higher education are well known and well documented on these pages – from uncertain funding, reduced staffing in student services, evolving workforce demands, to a student population that is very different than a decade ago. In the past 30 years, education has been at the forefront of social change and social justice, but while celebrating diversity is laudable, it is not the same thing as achieving equity. Understanding and identifying the need for equity is only the first step, and for many institutions the second step – creating equity – seems like an impossible task.

“Historically in the U. S., African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian groups experienced legalized discrimination,” said Dowd. “CUE is unique in assisting colleges and universities to address the legacies of racism that persist in our educational system.”

CUE’s Equity Scorecard™ is built around the concept not that a student must overcome inadequacies, but that the institution itself can be responsible for changing the student’s outcome. CUE has found that in order to bring about change, individuals must see inequities for themselves by examining institutional data, then investigate the inequities and develop recommendations and action plans. The Scorecard has generated a national reputation for the Center, and earned the philanthropic support of multiple foundations.

The Right Tool for the Job
Due to reduced funding and shrinking resources, many colleges and universities are unable to collect and
evaluate even basic data about their students, let alone data broken down by race and ethnicity.  According to CUE, it is not uncommon to find institutions that don’t gather or analyze information on which students or even how many students are actually moving from freshman year to sophomore year. Commonly reported data, such as student demographics and graduation rates, are only tiny pieces of a large puzzle. It can be overwhelming for institutions to look at and understand the picture that data create. The Equity Scorecard specializes in making sense of raw numbers and presenting them in a way that turns them into resources for improving student outcomes.

To facilitate the self-reflective process that is at the foundation of continued change, CUE uses a variety of tools, from data analysis programs to qualitative observation activities. CUE asks institutions to look at data broken down by race and ethnicity, which is housed in two data tools, the Vital Signs and the Benchmarking and Equity Student Success Tool™ (BESST™). These tools make institutional data accessible and useful. The BESST program takes flat, static numbers and allows practitioners to manipulate them. They can identify kinks in the pipeline to graduation, and more importantly, they can ask “What if?” If the data revealed a steep decline in retention between freshman and sophomore year for African American students, the school could ask “What if we intervened here and increased retention for African American students?” The BESST would instantly show them what effect that increase would have on the graduation rate of African American students as well as the overall graduation rate.

Professors Bensimon and Dowd are just a joy to work with as colleagues and as thoughtful researchers, nationally and internationally known for their work. Most important is their commitment to advancing high quality post-secondary opportunities for the most underserved students.

Douglas Wood, Ford Foundation Program Officer

Empowering Practitioners
The Equity Scorecard’s vehicle for change is the Evidence Team that is built from the institution’s own staff. Made up of eight to ten people, from academic deans and faculty to student support staff and program managers, the internal evidence team works with the CUE project specialist to examine institutional data, use the BESST to ask “what if” questions, conduct inquiry – such as examining course syllabi or observing key student support services – and make recommendations to campus leadership. It is this team of campus insiders who takes the Equity Scorecard tools and processes and uses them to create meaningful change.

According to Bensimon, “We teach our teams how to interrogate numerical data, how to see patterns that most people don’t see. We emphasize the skill of asking questions, rather than making assumptions.”

Through that process, CUE’s Equity Scorecard embeds a longterm system of inquiry. James Gray, chair of mathematics at one of CUE’s current partners, the Community College of Aurora in Colorado, identified the potential of the Equity Scorecard to act as a bridge between campus initiatives, current issues and national education goals. “The work with CUE fits right in with the redesign of developmental math, which is very much in line with the national trends. I honestly don’t think I would have thought of equity issues had it not been for our involvement with CUE.”

CUE and the Equity Scorecard empower practitioners to become experts on their own campus with their own data, and therefore make informed decisions and recommendations. The data analysis, investigative activities and support from institutional leadership – all of which are the building blocks of
CUE’s Equity Scorecard process – acknowledge the uniqueness of each institution.

CUE partners with institutions through foundation-based funding and also direct consulting, working with both individual campuses and entire higher education systems, such as the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (page 10). No matter how CUE is brought on as a partner, the needs and goals of the individual institution are incorporated into the Equity Scorecard.

The work of CUE is a daily reflection of Rossier’s mission to improve learning in urban education locally, nationally and globally. The Center has built the tools needed for our nation’s colleges and universities to look within, creating their own unique systems that can assure and sustain equity for each student.


by Emily Ogle