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An “equity gap” is an observed disparity between groups of students, especially between groups historically well-served and those historically marginalized within or underserved by education, such as women, students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, students who are the first generation in their families to earn a bachelor’s-level degree. Equity gaps are persistent and pervasive in higher education. The most commonly reported equity gaps are in admission, retention, and graduation rates. But colleges and universities have also observed gaps in DFW rates (the proportion of students earning a D or F or Withdrawing from a course), GPAs, participation in high-impact practices, and a variety of other measures. Students of color and students from low-income families are the most studied groups; equity gaps also persist for women in particular fields.

Both UWL and UW System have made closing equity gaps a priority. Success first requires a mental shift. Studies, starting in the 1970s to the present, continue to demonstrate that the deficit thinking (assuming that a group of students struggle because they are underprepared, or lazy, or unmotivated) tends not to explain equity gaps. An equity-minded approach appears to work better.  If we can identify and eliminate the barriers to student learning or practices that inadvertently contribute to inequities, we can close equity gaps.  IE thus calls upon all members of a campus community, but especially instructors, to ponder the research that helps us develop thoughtful, creative responses. A variety of measures can help us monitor the effects of our efforts.

Does UWL have equity gaps?

The UW System Accountability Dashboard reports on specific types of equity gaps across the UW System as well as at individual campuses, particularly under Access, Progress & Completion, and Undergraduate Experience. UWL reports data to this dashboard. UWL’s Office of Institutional Research has also recently calculated equity gaps in DFW rates for students of color by General Education category. Departments may request equity gap data for their own programs by contacting Institutional Research.

Data analysis informs us best when it disaggregates large populations like “students of color” by groups with more historically similar experiences. Institutional Research at UWL annually produces an equity measure report on General Education categories that examines African American, Hmong American, Native American, and Latino/a students separately. IR's report on graduation rates further disaggregates by gender identity (request these reports from CATL's Inclusive Excellence Coordinator). The differences matter to the responses we develop.

This section of the Instructor's Guide to IE will explore what researchers know about equity gaps in student learning and student success and what helps to close them. 


American Association of Colleges and Universities. (2015). Step Up and Lead for Equity: What Higher Education Can Do to Reverse Our Deepening Divides. Retrieved from You can download a free copy here.

Bensimon, E. M., Dowd, A. C., and Witham, K. (2016). Five principles for enacting equity by design. Diversity & Democracy (19:1). Retrieved from See the handout version with examples here.

Bensimon, E. M. (n.d.). Keys to understanding the importance of equity in higher education. The ASHE Institutes on Equity and Critical Policy Analysis, Center for Urban Education, University of Southern California. Retrieved from

Hoskins, D. (2016).  Equity gaps: overview.  In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from