Despite all-time highs for graduation rates, significant education gaps still persist. We have seen improvements in equal access to elementary and secondary education, yet there is still more that needs to be done to increase opportunities for students to attend college by better preparing them for post-secondary education.
We’ve come a long way since African American students were “separate but equal”—yet while the nation’s high school graduation rate topped 80 percent, the 69 percent rate for African American kids is far too low.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only about 25 percent of the nation’s high school seniors were proficient in math and only 38 percent are meeting adequate levels of proficiency in reading. ACT’s annual report on college and career readiness shows that only 5 percent of African American students graduate high school college-ready, compared to the 25 percent national average.
Our focus needs to shift from equal access to education, to equal access to quality education. We must not only ensure that students have access to school, but also that attending is worthwhile. After all, the social and economic returns on investment in today’s students will benefit us all.
The Quality Challenge
Making this a reality will require dedication within and beyond the halls of our nation’s schools. An educational experience is not one-size-fits-all, and schools should support personal experience, family expectations and socioeconomic status. We need to ensure that curricula make sense and at the same time, we need to improve content delivery so students are engaged and retaining information.
We also need to get parents deeply involved.
According to research from United Negro College Fund’s Frederick D. Patterson Institute, almost 90 percent of low-income African American parents want their children to earn a bachelor’s degree. But these parents simply do not know what they need to do to help their children achieve their educational dreams—we need to help them help their children achieve those dreams. Teacher training and leadership programs can help enable and empower teachers, and, consequently, improve quality.
Supporting historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) will also help to ensure a balance of opportunities for all students beyond high school. Patterson Institute studies show that HBCUs are a great educational option, especially for low-income and academically underprepared students, graduating them at higher than expected rates. Patterson research also demonstrates that the HBCUs that comprise the UNCF network—private, liberal arts institutions—are 26 percent lower in costs than comparable institutions, demonstrating that these campuses can provide their students with the educational gains that come from attending small, intimate, high-quality colleges at a lower cost.
Encouraging role models to show students the bigger picture of educational options open to them is one way to help improve standards, as students often cannot see what comes after years in the classroom.
Fortunately, many of these ideas are already underway with the help of the private sector. The GE Foundation began its six-decade commitment to education by awarding one of its first grants to the UNCF in 1954. Today it continues to dedicate resources and corporate expertise to train administrators and teachers, and to expand access to programs like Advanced Placement that prepare students for success during their pursuit of higher education and in their careers.
UNCF is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, and has expanded its tagline to “A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to invest in,” emphasizing a new philanthropy with students and their futures as the social and economic returns on investments benefit all of us. UNCF helps more than 60,000 students attend college each year and has helped 400,000 students receive college degrees since its inception. UNCF scholarship recipients have a college graduation rate that is 10 percent higher than the national average. In fact, according to UNCF’s Patterson Research Institute, with a $5,000 scholarship, a first-year African American student’s likelihood of graduation increases by over seven percentage points.
As we reflect on the progress made over the past six decades since Brown v. Board of Education, we are still conscious of the fact that our schools and systems need to evolve to ensure quality education, as well as equal access to education, to equip all students with the skills and knowledge needed to gain access to college.
Given the data, there is clearly an urgent need to improve. Barriers were broken 60 years ago and opportunities arose for American students everywhere. Today, we are challenged again, to fulfill the promise of Brown by providing unmitigated access to a quality education that prepares students to address their challenge—to lead our nation in the decades to come. Together, we can and will succeed.
Deborah A. Elam is president of the GE Foundation and Chief Diversity Officer for GE; Brian K. Bridges, Ph.D, is executive director of the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute at the United Negro College Fund