Internship: Demographic meta-analysis of the Sierra College student body and disparately impacted success of its populations.

Executive Summary

Sierra college’s current approach to closing equity gaps is that we have three committees working separately on an arbitrary set of less than half of the demographics for which we are reporting success data. None of these committees focuses on intersectional identities. None of these committees is funded. And none of these committees has any real power outside of making recommendations.

For nearly all of the most impacted groups, their identities are not addressed by this arbitrary structure, and their success metrics are getting worse, not better.

What Is Disparate Impact?

Disparate impact means that people in some groups do not succeed to the same degree as people in other groups do, on average. Equity gaps measure how big the difference is between the lower success of some groups versus the higher success of some other group. In sociology, this is a major field of research. California recently passed new rules which base funding for schools on how well they close these gaps over time.

In sociology, we track several major impacted populations. We know for example that marginalized classes (such as people of color, women, transgender people, and others) will have disparate impact because these groups are suffering marginalization in society. Black people will be impacted versus white people. Women will be impacted versus men. Typically these differences are measured in terms of life expectancy, income, housing stability, etc. In this case we are measuring success at Sierra College for each group.

Who Is Most Impacted?

At some point in the last year, I asked several professors which populations are the most impacted at Sierra College. I was surprised to lean that no one knew the answer. Further research led me to learn that there was no current way of searching the data for the answer to this question. One could, for example, check the success of “gay black transgender students,” but there was no list of all the populations which could be sorted by their success metrics.

During the fall 2019 semester, I completed a sociology internship at Sierra College. The project was to build a new way of analyzing disparate impact. Over the course of the semester, I created a new database which contains all the public success data for all the groups which are large enough to be reported. A law called FERPA says that we can not report the success of populations with a size smaller than ten.

Initially, I tried to execute this analysis through the school’s research department. FERPA became a favorite roadblock which would be raised when I asked questions or asked for data. “[We can’t answer that because the answer could include data about groups with population sizes fewer than ten, so it would violate FERPA.]” When I followed up to suggest that we simply include the population size in the results, and remove any results where the size is less than ten, the response was that this would be infeasible. I quickly decided to simply conduct the meta-analysis myself.

Results and Methodology

My final report is available here. Demographics and population size are listed for all the populations, while success metrics are listed to the right. The data can be sorted by any value, and filters may be used in the search box. Additionally, I have also published the database as well as the tools I built in order to complete this project. Free tools such as SQLite Browser will allow anyone to query and analyze the database further.

The schools’ current equity strategy looks at identities from a non-intersectional  perspective. Sierra College has three committees working on student equity. One committee focuses on race, one committee focuses on gender, and one focuses on sexual orientation as well as gender-identity. None of these committees is funded or has any real power except to make recommendations. I want to repeat this point because it is the critical finding of this research. Sierra College’s current equity committees look at gender OR race OR sexual orientation/transgender. Sierra College’s current equity committees DO NOT look at gender AND race or gender AND sexual orientation. None of the equity committees look at the many other demographics such as foster youth status, income, veteran status, disabilities, homelessness, etc.

The system of looking only at one intersection at a time while not comparing them to others or including multiple dimensions leaves huge blind spots for the people working on closing equity gaps. I see two main problems that come from this  blind spot;

  1. The first major problem arising from this blind spot is that we don’t know what we don’t know. For example, all ten of the most impacted populations are black, but eight of them are also former foster youth. This highly significant factor is not addressed by any of the current equity committees. There are programs for foster youth, and there are programs for black students, but there is no one whose job it is to look at improving conditions for black foster youth. And so it’s not surprising that for all ten of these populations, conditions are getting worse, not better.
  2. The second major problem is the lack of an intersectional approach to closing equity gaps. We pay a lot of attention to race, but the fact that the most significant factor for black students is an intersection with foster youth status was previously unknown. It’s worth mentioning that none of the equity committees looks at foster youth status. In fact, while the school reports eight dimensions of demographics for success data, the equity committees are looking at only four of them. Several of the state’s required metrics are not being reported at all. (More on that later.) Despite the fact that foster youth status is the most significant factor impacting success of black students, no one is empowered to work on the issues affecting specifically black foster youth students.

This is not just about black foster youth students. Throughout the meta-analysis, we see examples where complex intersectional identities show disparate impact which one-dimensional identities do not. We see hundreds of students whose intersectional identities are not addressed or even observed by the current one-dimensional system. For example;

  • The ten most impacted LGBT groups are all non-white
  • The ten most impacted female groups are all non-white
  • The ten most impacted low-income groups are 70% non-white

In all of these examples, almost all of the intersectional groups show success going down, while success for the corresponding one-dimensional identities is going up. This is a critical flaw in the current system. When white women and black women are categorized together, the average looks like women are doing ok with a 0% change this year. But in reality, black women are seeing low and decreasing success while white women are seeing high and increasing success. The average is inaccurate and ignores the fact that people have intersectional identities.

  • Success of multi-ethnic homosexuals (n=23) went down by 24% this year.
    • Success of homosexuals alone (n=249) only dropped 4%, buoyed by white homosexuals (n=131) which saw a 3% increase in success, while some white subgroups saw success increases as high as 29%.
  • Success of low-income black women who were foster youth went down by 31% this year.
    • Females overall (n=12,594) saw a 0% change in success this year, buoyed by more privileged groups.

Opportunities For Further Work

Perhaps the most important piece of future work on this topic could be incorporating more demographics data about student populations. In many cases, Sierra College is not even tracking critical demographics data about student populations. For example, a student is only counted as disabled if they ask for an accommodation which is subsequently approved by the college. A student who shows up for class in a wheelchair while struggling with severe depression but does not ask for any accommodation (or whose request for accommodation is denied) is not counted as disabled according to Sierra College. This needs to change.

Additionally, Sierra College is not currently reporting all the required success metrics as listed by the California Community Colleges. Specifically, there are enormous swathes of data missing from the public website. In some cases, metrics are omitted entirely. For example, there is no mention of the required metrics “number of students who complete nine or more career education units,” or, “number of student who have attained the regional living wage.” In other cases, entire years of information are simply left blank where the data is reported at all.

Additionally, many longitudinal metrics are falsely reported as static by the school. For example, we have no way of determining the success of students who come out as LGBT at Sierra College because the school does not update this critical longitudinal demographic data. Instead the school falsely reports these longitudinal values as static when students enroll, as though these metrics do not change. So a student who comes out as gay or transgender at Sierra will be counted as straight or cisgender for their entire career at Sierra. Since these are already deeply impacted populations, their suffering and marginalization is going completely unreported by the school. It’s not clear to what degree this false and inaccurate reporting may be deliberate. The problem has been raised by interested parties and stakeholders on multiple occasions in recent years, to no change from the school.

Filling in these data gaps and correcting deeply unjust metrics would make important work for future researchers and activists at Sierra College.

Lastly, the work of updating and publishing this data should be conducted by the school’s research department. Students should not have to take unpaid internships and work for months in order to answer basic research questions which the school should already be reporting through its well-funded research department which ostensibly exists for this purpose.

Conclusion: My Suggestions

  1. We need more resource centers and engagement centers which are staffed more consistently and are available for students who need them.
  2. We need more resources and better training so that staff can actually explain them to people who need them.
  3. We need better outreach and research to honestly explore where the problems are and what the best solutions are.
  4. We need more intersectional cohorts. (ie. black foster youth, queer people of color, etc.) Many of the groups identified in this meta-analysis are more than large enough to form a cohort. This would allow students in these populations to build community ties with people like themselves. This is critical for success.
  5. We need to be funding equity committees and giving them actual power and permanent staff. These problems are not going to be solved by inviting untrained staff to volunteer on a toothless and unfunded committee.
    1. We need more equity committees. Having at least one for each of the demographics we are required to report would be a good start.
    2. Equity committees need training on intersectionality. These committees need to be working together and meeting more than biweekly, and doing more than planning fundraisers.