Student Self-Placement as an Equity Strategy

By: Melinda Karp, Phase Two Advisory

When it comes to placing students into their first-semester math and English courses, colleges increasingly recognize that a single assessment is poorly predictive of student success, inhibits student progression while increasing costs and disproportionately negatively impacts Black, Hispanic, low-income and first-generation students. But, if single assessments aren’t a useful placement approach, what should colleges use instead? Institutions around the country are experimenting with a variety of approaches, but one increasingly common method is self-placement, in which students take an active role in the placement process.

Self-placement approaches are appealing for several reasons.

First, early studies find they may increase the proportion of entering students placing directly into college-level courses, as well as the percentage of entering cohorts completing gateway college courses within a year of matriculation. Second, self-placement is logistically simpler than approaches relying on external data. Third, self-placement enables colleges to elevate student voice and express trust in students — and campus personnel report that students are more bought into the process and are less likely to challenge their placement when they have a say in their course options.

Given that previous placement models had negative impacts for racially minoritized, poverty-impacted and first-generation students, we would hope that newer approaches would mitigate such inequitable outcomes. The results so far have been mixed. Some studies find that self-placement can start to close the gaps between white and Black students; others find that those gaps, as well as those across genders, may be exacerbated. Why might this be the case, and what can colleges do to ensure that when they experiment with self-placement, they do so in a way that supports equitable outcomes?

Colleges are designing self-placement approaches with equity at the center.

In a new report, we investigate the ways that colleges are designing self-placement approaches with equity at the center. By that, we mean engaging in a process that, from the outset, seeks to identify the student groups that may be marginalized by current or future systems, surface barriers within those systems and create an approach that deliberately removes those barriers. We are particularly focused on ensuring equity for student groups historically excluded from higher education and for whom higher education was not designed, including Black, Latinx, Indigenous and first-generation students although, in many instances, other student sub-groups may also need to be included in equity-focused efforts.

Whatever the approach, all the colleges and systems with whom we spoke intentionally tried to design their self-placement approaches with equity at the center. They used an array of strategies to do this. One college is piloting the use of growth mindset self-assessments in order to place students in higher level courses wherever possible. Others have invested heavily in professional learning for advisors, emphasizing the reduction of implicit bias and implementation of asset-based approaches to placement conversations.

Perhaps the most equity-forward approach was a college’s integration of social psychology research on the positive impact that social belonging can have on racially minoritized and first-generation students’ college success. Based on this research, the college uses an “agency-information-reflection” cycle, which provides students with clear information on their options and guides them to make choices that reflect their experiences, strengths, priorities and goals. They do this via a self-assessment tool that combines example assignments and reflections with written information about course options and videos of students and professors describing those courses and success strategies. Students select their own course placement and provide a written reflection explaining why they chose the course they did. Preliminary data analysis conducted by the college found a nearly 50-point increase in the percentage of Black students registering for college-level courses.

For colleges that want to get started:

A few lessons and strategies emerged from the approaches described in our brief. They serve as a starting point for other campuses seeking to design self-placement processes with equity at the center.

  1. Trust Students. The campus personnel with whom we spoke were clear that when given information on what is expected of them, students are aware of what they do and do not know, and will acknowledge gaps in their knowledge.
  2. Train advisors. Advisors play a critical role in self-placement systems. They need to be supported as they learn to have empowering conversations with students, and to connect broader implicit bias training with self-placement and faculty growth mindset.
  3. Connect placement with support. Elevating students’ placement, honoring their strengths and giving them agency only works if institutions change their practices to ensure student success.
  4. Communicate for clarity. Campuses engaged in self-placement have found that formal higher-education words are often meaningless or — worse — intimidating for students. Shifting to clearer and more accessible language more effectively helps students understand the placement-related steps they need to take, why and what will happen next.
  5. Build belonging. As noted, research shows that a sense of belonging supports student success, particularly for racially minoritized and first-generation learners. Self-placement systems should leverage this research by integrating information on success strategies, highlighting current student experiences and connecting course information to students’ past educational experiences.

In sum, self-placement models are showing early signs of success in increasing the number of students entering and completing college-level gateway courses — but they need to be intentionally structured with equity at the center. The strategies shared here are a first step, and we encourage other colleges to implement them and take a continuous improvement approach, refining them in order to continually improve the likelihood that access to and success in college-credit courses are not related to students’ racial, financial, gender or other background characteristics.