Vertical vs. Horizontal Equity in Higher Ed

Amy Jenkins
January 12, 2023

Addressing Equity in Higher Ed

Across K-12 and higher education, equity is a big topic of conversation. In higher ed, it is often broken down into two main categories: horizontal equity and vertical equity. Both cover fairness within higher education systems. Horizontal equity focuses on access to educational opportunities for various demographics. Vertical equity, on the other hand, focuses on the fairness of outcomes for different student populations.

Today, these two approaches to equity are used to gain a greater understanding of access to higher education for different groups. But what is education equity in practice? Let’s take a look at more granular issues related to both, such as finances and academic performance.

Horizontal Equity: Giving Everyone the Chance to Join In

Horizontal equity in higher education refers specifically to a student’s ability to access educational opportunities regardless of factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic class. This concept is focused on ensuring that all students, regardless of their background, have the same opportunity to pursue higher education.

Horizontal equity includes making sure that admissions criteria and college costs are equitable, as well as providing adequate financial aid and support services to those who need them. The goal of horizontal equity is to create a level playing field in which all students have an equal chance of success.

Colleges and universities that want to increase the diversity of their schools and create more opportunities for all students should strive to create a system in which all students have the same degree of financial aid resources, college enrollment planning, and other types of critical support from admissions staff. The goal here is to reduce barriers related to tuition costs, admissions criteria, and lack of financial aid clarity.

Just How Important is Financial Transparency?

As outlined above, horizontal equity is aimed at getting all students—regardless of race, gender, economic status, and ethnicity—a shot at higher education. That’s because these types of students often face barriers when preparing for college. The most significant is a financial barrier.

When students fill out FAFSA, they make themselves eligible for every form of federal aid. But students won’t fill out their FAFSA forms unless they think they can afford college… even with aid like grants, scholarships, and work-studies.

If universities want to prioritize horizontal equity, one key way is to provide transparent financial estimates for students. Financial aid officers should sit down with prospects to lay out how they can plan for their higher education in terms of finances. Some schools are also personalizing Net Price Calculators (NPCs) to create tailored cost-of-attendance estimates for students. More accurate and personalized estimates give students the confidence they can afford school with the aid provided, encouraging more applications for universities.

A personalized approach allows each student to manage their resources in pursuit of higher education.

Vertical Equity: Moving Up the Ladder of Success

Vertical equity in higher education refers to the fairness of outcomes for different student groups. It focuses on making sure that all students have a fair chance of achieving their educational goals—not just pursuing them in general.

To do this, higher education systems should strive to provide all students with the resources and support they need to help them succeed. This includes providing adequate financial aid, support services, and mentorship programs to those who need them. It includes recognizing that different students have different needs and seeking to meet them. For many institutions, this is the precise role of student success centers.

The goal of vertical equity is to ensure that all students have the same chance of achieving their educational goals regardless of their circumstances. In other words, horizontal equity is about onboarding students from every walk of life. Vertical equity requires colleges to rise u to the challenge of making sure each student has the necessary resources at their fingertips to help them succeed.

Just How Important is Student Success?

Universities want their students to succeed. Not only do they seek to keep graduation rates high and foster an active and passionate alumni body, but they also want to push students to innovate in their field. To do this, universities often create student success centers.

These centers are locations on campus where students can seek counseling for their unique pursuits. While an admissions office handles financial aid, these student success centers handle academic and creative projects. They’re the primary location where staff can engage with students and get hands-on in helping them pursue their goals.

For some students, this might be simply scraping by with a D in a difficult course. For others, it may be about landing a spot at the Sony World Photography Awards or presenting at the National Council for Undergraduate Research.

Challenges in Equity in Higher Education

Most equity gaps in higher education are tied to race, socioeconomic background, and gender. A recent report by the organization Complete College America found that there has been some progress in reducing equity gaps in higher education.

The report states that completion rates are improving among all student populations. A separate Axios report found that shifts in college enrollment requirements (including removing enrollment fees and standardized test scores) have led to higher rates of applications for students of color and first-generation college students. The same report found that there are 130 women for every 100 men at four-year colleges across the US.

Though neither data point hints that the fight for horizontal and vertical equity will end soon, they highlight the incremental steps taken nationwide to improve equity in higher education are having an impact. There is more to do but many colleges and universities see that and are ready for it.

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