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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Admissions

Written By:
Laura Bald
Monday, February 8, 2021


If you spend a few minutes on Google, you’ll notice articles upon articles discussing diversity and inclusion efforts in the world of higher education. Now more than ever, colleges and universities across the nation are focused on recruiting diverse populations. While celebrating the differences that make each one of us unique is an important first step, it can’t be where you stop. Keep these things in mind as you think about ways to make your institution a safe space for all:

Gender and Sex

Almost all applications, inquiry forms, and event forms ask for someone’s sex (or more accurately, legal sex designation). Often this information is asked for federal reporting purposes. Unfortunately, data collection agencies like IPEDS still limit the sexes to female and male (and inaccurately refers to this data point as “gender”). While asking legal sex designation is still a necessary part of collecting data, your institution can provide additional options like “non-binary” or “prefer not to respond.”

Another way sex is often used by schools is to help faculty and staff know how to address a student. A student selects “female” on a form, so they are now referred to as “she” and “her.” Yet, gender is not always limited to, nor always congruent with, legal sex designation. To allow for a student to define their own gender in which they would prefer to be recognized, you could keep the Legal Sex Designation question and also ask for “Gender Identity.”. If you’re unsure of what prompt options should be available in a Gender Identity question, there are plenty of LGTBQ+ resources that provide lists of gender types that can be used. But if you’re worried that this won’t necessarily help you know how to address a student, the most straightforward question to ask is “What is your preferred pronoun?” Getting this answer removes any guesswork and ensures that no assumptions are made about a student. Additionally, these types of questions send a signal that your school is an inclusive, safe place for all students

Financial Need and Scholarships

Some universities are lucky to have the resources to provide scholarships to most, if not all applicants. Some may even have a pool of funds that are used throughout the admissions cycle. Often, applicants don’t have to do anything other than apply to the school to be considered for and offered a scholarship. Their GPA and test scores (pre-COVID) are all that are needed to make a scholarship decision. Many schools will even automate the process, so the system calculates a scholarship amount based on an applicant’s quantitative qualifications. However, such a straightforward system does create some equity issues that must be recognized.

The racial disparities in academic performance have been documented time and time again. Differences in GPA can also be seen in first-generation students as well as between those students who identify as male and female. By using the straightforward scale of GPA to designate scholarships, schools are inadvertently discounting women, underrepresented minorities, and first-generation students. Although there are nondiscrimination laws that must be considered when developing scholarship award criteria, there are ways that a school can level the playing field.

An option could be to consider financial need. By adding an optional financial questionnaire to the application process, you’ll able to get insight into an applicant’s true need for the scholarship. If they’ve completed the FAFSA already, you can just have them submit their already calculated student aid index (or what used to be the estimated family contribution).Having this additional numerical qualification still allows for the process to be automated while also providing a little more opportunity to those who haven’t always been set up for academic success.

Holistic Reviews

In the same vein of scholarship reviews, schools may not begathering enough of the right information to make equitable admissions decisions. 2020 was the year that most universities and colleges went test optional. Although this movement was out of necessity due to testing closures because of COVID-19, this change greatly benefited students of color. Not only was the SAT developed literally for the purpose of proving white intellectual superiority, there have been proven race gaps found in test scores which perpetuate the inequality of these exams. With test scores no longer in the mix, GPA still tends to be the primary factor considered in admissions. Given the known issues with GPA, however, there is still more that can be done to promote equity and diversity.

Competition between higher education institutions has led many schools to simplify their applications in fear that students won’t want to spend the time doing the work. However, this leaves the admissions committee with little on which to make their decisions. A school can reduce or eliminate systemic barriers by allowing a student the opportunity to provide context as to who they are and from where they came. Ask for essays, resumes, interviews, and/or portfolios. Allow the student to show who they are beyond just a number. If you’re worried that this will prevent students from wanting to submit their application, make it optional. Giving this opportunity to a student to shine beyond their GPA may make the ultimate difference in their future.

Raising the Bar

There has never been a better time to stop talking and start acting. Our advice? Begin questioning the status quo – look closely at your current policies and procedures for gaps and begin to make small improvements. Choose equity over efficiency – sometimes what is best for your constituents may take time and effort, but it’ll always be worth it. And look beyond your admissions process – take a microscope to your campus community and look for ways to expand your diversity efforts, whether that’s through an on-campus club, student organization, academic offering, or mentorship program. Now is the time to raise the bar, acknowledge biases, and turn ideas into results.      

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About the Author

The solver. With a background in developing admissions strategies under a lens of diversity, equity and inclusion, Laura brings years of information systems experience to her role at Underscore. Prior to joining the team, Laura worked for Portland State University, where she led multiple application and recruiting implementations, as well as maintained the organization and integrity of data.


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