Board Oversight of Equitable Student Success

How can we enable boards to address barriers to student success using an equity lens?

Board focus on student success for all students is not only a moral imperative, but is also a fiduciary duty and strategic imperative directly related to institutional sustainability. Demographics have shifted; the student bodies enrolled at today’s colleges and universities have dramatically changed from those of previous decades when most trustees were students. Institutions and the boards that govern them must use an equity lens in all decisions and planning to ensure that students enroll, excel, graduate, and thrive. In many cases, this will require transformation of board roles, processes, and business.

Transformation in higher education is the realignment of an institution’s structure, culture, and business model to create a student experience that results in dramatic and equitable increases in outcomes and educational value.In 2016, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) initiated the Frontier Set of diverse institutions innovating around and improving student outcomes committed to collaborative sharing and learning to generate knowledge and accelerate institutional transformation. The Frontier Set institutions have been advancing and documenting practices that work to improve student outcomes and eliminate race, ethnicity, and income as predictors of student success.

Governing boards have largely been absent from the growing conversation about and demonstrative commitment to equity and inclusion as related to the pursuit of equitable student success.2 Their absence has been exacerbated by their lack of knowledge of or willingness to engage in this work.3

Lack of Alignment

Some boards and board members are simply not aligned with the growing efforts for equity and improved student outcomes on their own campuses.

Lack of Inclusivity

Some administrators have left their boards out of the conversation for fear that board engagement would slow or reduce their efforts.

Lack of Understanding

Some are caught in the misunderstood relationship of equity with quality and fail to grasp the greater value of inclusive excellence.

Lack of Involvement

Some boards and board members are supportive of efforts to achieve equity, inclusiveness, and equitable student outcomes but see no reason for the involvement of the board.

Lack of Interest

Some are simply disinterested.

Political Challenges

Some shy away from engagement due to local, regional, and state politics.

Boards are beginning to overcome barriers to transformation and are increasingly focused on meaningful change.

A growing number of boards are investing themselves and their resources in addressing issues of race, gender, culture, socio-economic status, and student success. These boards demonstrate an increasing awareness of the need for strategic transformation in developing equitable student success at their institutions and understand that the tactical accomplishments of their administrations and faculties on this path are incomplete and at risk without the strategic engagement of boards.

Boards and administrations are gradually coming to realize that the trajectory of demographic shifts, the nation’s well-documented need to radically increase the number and subject diversity of earned degrees and certificates, and the need to achieve more inclusive outcomes require significant changes in institutional culture and business models. The permanency of these changes requires boards to focus on mission, strategic decisions, allocation of resources, and policy renewal. To fail to do so is to fail to position the institution, region, and nation for success and to further jeopardize the international economic, strategic, and innovation standing of the United States.

Our effort relative to boards and equitable student success is designed to be supportive of and compatible with the BMGF Equitable Student Success/Equitable Value ecosystem under construction since 2016. Strategic transformation in higher education requires engagement with the transformation of society. Each board and each individual board member are on non-linear situational and personal journeys in this work.

How your board can use the resources on this site.

Our effort is to provide learnings, tools, a playbook, and experiences that enable strategic transformation for boards in their need to understand and lead. What follows will serve as a guide—not “The Guide.” We have built processes that are adaptable to individual institutional and personal circumstances. This guide seeks to enable institutional approaches to plans to achieve greater justice, equity, and inclusion embedded with goals for improved student success.

Strategic transformation will require deeper learning among board members and often uncomfortable conversations as a part of the path to equitable student outcomes. The business model and cultural changes required to achieve a new set of outcomes may often be taxing and particularly challenging. Boards, in collaboration with their institutional teams, can learn together to set transformative goals and build appropriate accountability systems. We have been guided in this work by the work already accomplished and ongoing by the BMGF Frontier Set of institutions, including engaged intermediary organizations; AGB’s Principles of Trusteeship; The AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Justice, Equity, and Inclusion; research conducted by our curriculum consultants; and our advisory group.

AGB will continue to add tools, resources, and new thinking to inspire and empower boards, presidents, and campus communities to achieve the goal of equitable student success and to continue this essential work for colleges and universities.

1 Frontier Set, 2022
2 Brown, Legon, MacTaggart, 2020
3 Rall, 2020

“We are excited to work with the Gates Foundation to develop and provide board members with resources to help them oversee and advance student success. This grant will allow us to create an informative and practical curriculum for boards with actionable recommendations and resources.”

Henry Stoever

President and CEO, AGB