Students in the 100 Males to College program in Springfield read a packet at Westfield State University

Strategic Initiatives

Equity Agenda


The DHE will develop a statewide strategic plan focused on equity, to be reflected in our policies, programs, and initiatives. The expectation is that, by doing so, the Massachusetts system of public higher education will enhance economic and social mobility for all citizens, but particularly for those that have historically been underserved and underrepresented, especially students of color, throughout all levels of education.


Nicole Johnson, Ed.D
Director of Educational Equity & Justice Office of the Commissioner
(617) 994-6928

Elena Quiroz-Livanis
Chief of Staff
Assistant Commissioner for Academic Policy and Student Success
(617) 994-6909


2019 – Present



Community Colleges, State Universities, and University of Massachusetts System


Producing equitable outcomes while increasing overall degree attainment is  the top policy and performance priority for the Board and Department of Higher Education, and we have a plan of action to dismantle barriers and work toward ensuring a just educational experience within which students will thrive. 

Equity First: Achieving Racial Justice in Higher Education

On September 10, 2020, the DHE and Lumina Foundation announced a comprehensive new plan to achieve racial equity for students attending Massachusetts public colleges and universities.

During the September 2018 Board of Higher Education (BHE) retreat, Commissioner Santiago and Chair Gabrieli proposed to members this new direction for public higher education that would reaffirm the state’s commitment to maintaining high levels of educational attainment among the adult population while emphasizing equitable postsecondary outcomes for minoritized students. In partnership with Massachusetts public higher education institutions, the Board and Department of Higher Education (DHE) will develop a 10-year statewide strategic plan focused on equity. The expectation is that, by focusing on equity in our policies, programs, and initiatives, the Massachusetts system of public higher education will enhance economic and social mobility for all citizens, particularly students of color, throughout all levels of education.

Our work will focus on assessing current and prospective higher education policy using an equity lens. The success of this initiative requires improving student outcomes and movement in the right direction would be illustrated by overall progress for students in general, accompanied by even more rapid and substantial improvements for minoritized students. Equity is more than simply creating a level playing field; it requires a concerted and intentional effort to remove barriers and obstacles that hinder the success of students that heretofore did not have these advantages. Massachusetts will not be able to maintain its position as the most educated state in the country unless we address the systemic inequities that exist within our system public of higher education. An enhanced focus on increased attainment with an emphasis on equity would not only help Massachusetts remain a global competitor in industries such as education, medicine and technology, but more importantly, it would fulfill the promise of economic and social mobility that many students, especially students of color, seek when entering into postsecondary.

Vision Statement

At its December 11, 2018 meeting, the BHE adopted the following Vision Statement to guide the work of developing a new statewide strategic plan for public higher education.

“The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education (BHE) aims to sustain and expand on Massachusetts’ unique leadership position in higher education as defined by the strength and reputation of our private and public postsecondary institutions and our nation-leading level of attainment among our adult citizens. To further realize those goals and to ensure that public higher education opens doors of opportunity and fulfilment for traditionally underserved populations, we elect to make our top statewide policy and performance priority – Significantly raise the enrollment, attainment and long-term success outcomes among under-represented student populations. We intend this equity lens priority to guide campus and system performance measurement and promote initiatives and policies that collectively expand success for residents and for our economy and society, including the development of an integrated financial planning process to ensure long term sustainability and affordability.”

In order to meet the two goals in the vision statement, the Department will need to partner with institutions, as most of the work needed to promote equity and increase attainment occurs at the campus level. As we know, we will not be able to meet goals around educational attainment if we do not center our work on ensuring equitable outcomes for all students. Critical to the viability and sustainability of a statewide strategic plan for Massachusetts public higher education will be the integration of system goals at the campus level, specifically within institutional strategic plans. This means the Department will also need to examine its existing policies and initiatives to determine how to better align and promote the statewide equity imperative.

Goals of the Equity Agenda

As a recently named Lumina Foundation Talent, Innovation, and Equity (TIE) partner state, The Board of Higher Education adopted the following goals on May 5, 2020 in furtherance of the Equity Agenda. 

  • GOAL 1: Sixty percent of working-age Massachusetts residents ages 25–64 will hold an associate degree or higher and an additional 10% of the population will hold a high-quality credential by 2030.  
  • GOAL 2: Forty-three percent of African American and 32% of Latinx Massachusetts residents ages 25–64 will hold an associate degree or higher by 2024.  
  • GOAL 3: By 2030, the rate at which the Massachusetts public higher education system graduates African American and Latinx students will increase to 51% and 50% respectively, outpacing the current rate of increase by 10%.
  • GOAL 4: DHE will also track and report on racial gaps in first-year success metrics incorporated into PMRS, including completion of college-level math and English in the first year, on-time credit accumulation, and persistence to a second year of postsecondary education.  

Racial Equity Principles

After completing a four-day Equity Institute, hosted by the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, Department staff developed racial equity principles to guide the advancement of the Equity Agenda. The principles are intended to assist in the cultural transformation of the Department, as well as ground the Equity Agenda in equity-minded policy change. 

Racial equity:

  • Will be achieved when race no longer determines one’s outcomes in the Massachusetts public higher education system
  • Is the top policy and performance priority for the Department of Higher Education
  • Must be embedded system-wide and permeate the Department’s structure, culture, and policies
  • Requires the use of asset-based language to minimize the threat of harm, deficit, and stereotype reinforcement
    “Asset-based language” defines people by their aspirations and contributions, rather than the systemic barriers and challenges they face
  • Requires acknowledgement, remedy, and repair of policies and practices which have excluded or created barriers

We must:

  • Recognize that clarity in language, goals, and measures is vital to racially equitable practices
  • Promote culturally sustainable campus climates in which all students can thrive and are regarded in the totality of their human dignity
    “Culturally sustainable” means recognizing, maintaining, and developing cultural identity and diversity, as they are assets, not weaknesses (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Paris 2012)
  • Create and cultivate an inclusive environment to encourage the support and participation of relevant stakeholders
  • Acknowledge the experience and knowledge of people of color, and seek to engage people of color in the pursuit of racial equity in meaningful ways
  • Incentivize the development and support the implementation of equity-minded, evidence-based solutions

Action Plan

In furtherance of the Equity Agenda, to achieve racial equity, we must be successful in these integrated strategies. With support from the Lumina Foundation, the Department will engage in the following activities:

  • Policy Audit
    • Complete a Department-wide policy audit to assess all policies and initiatives
    • Identify and remove policies that exacerbate racial inequity
    • Redesign the Department’s policy scheme to build a culturally sustainable public postsecondary system where students can thrive
  • Student Experience
    • Reimagine the undergraduate experience in order to dismantle systemic barriers by recognizing students’ cultural wealth and transforming teaching and learning
    • Align system and institutional efforts to create student-ready campuses
  • Data & Evidence
    • Expand data dashboards to measure progress toward the goal of racial equity and include baseline projections and benchmarks of Massachusetts public higher education enrollment through 2030
    • Value students’ experiences through qualitative research
    • Identify and support the implementation of equity-minded, evidence-based solutions

Explore the Performance Measurement Reporting System > 

  • Community of Practice
    • Support the growth of a system-wide community of practice
    • Elevate the work of equity leaders
    • Create digital resources for campuses, which may include implementation toolkits and digital archives to allow sharing across campuses
    • Develop a statewide professional development curriculum focused on culturally sustaining teaching practices