Recently, I visited my hometown, Birmingham, Ala., to recognize high-achieving eighth graders from the city’s public schools. I found myself reflecting on my own experiences as a 12-year-old in that city, participating in the Children’s March of 1963 to fight for access to a better education. As I sat there, I kept wondering: Just how far have we come?
Today, only about half of the students who began college have earned a degree six years later, and the completion rates are much lower for students of color. For example, among students who start at a four-year college or university, about 59 percent graduate from that institution within six years, while only 40 percent of African-Americans do so. The gap is equally striking by income. More than 80 percent of Americans from families in the top income quartile have attained a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared with fewer than 10 percent of those from families in the bottom income quartile. It’s clear that increasing access to college is not enough.
Ensuring that more students succeed will require a host of strategies, from better understanding our students’ strengths and challenges to supporting teacher and faculty development. Any solution must start with this mind-set — we must agree that it is not acceptable for such a large number of students to work hard to earn a college education, often going into debt, not to succeed. As a society, we must be willing to look in the mirror, and we need to listen to students and their families as we craft strategies.
Most important, we need caring communities in which residents view student success as a collective responsibility. I learned in Birmingham and I see at my university that young people need adults who can support them by setting expectations and helping them develop critical thinking skills and a sense of self. We need comprehensive public policies that encourage leaders and practitioners across all sectors — pre-K-12, two-year and four-year institutions, businesses, government agencies and nonprofits — to work together. As we grapple with issues of inequality in education, there are no quick fixes. There also weren’t quick fixes 50 years ago. But through decades of commitment and hard work, we have made progress.
We must remain committed to this work for the long haul.
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