THE BLOG

Making the Dream a Reality: The Education Community's Next Chapter

08/28/2013 04:18 pm ET | Updated Oct 28, 2013
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Fifty years ago -- on Wednesday, Aug., 28, 1963 -- hundreds of thousands converged in Washington, D.C., at the Lincoln Memorial in support of civil and economic rights for African Americans at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was at this gathering that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the historic "I Have a Dream" speech, urging the nation to open "the great vaults of opportunity" for all. Dr. King's speech was a defining moment in the Civil Rights movement, which helped to set the tone for subsequent passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Last Saturday, I attended the rally commemorating 50 years since this occasion, joining thousands of people who once again met in Washington, D.C., to honor the movement and its leaders. As I sat on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial, reveling in shared solidarity, I reflected on the progress ushered in by the Civil Rights movement. Many of the conditions in which we live today are drastically better than they were five decades ago -- people of all colors can move more freely through society, no longer adhering to the laws of segregation. The doors of opportunity have expanded, and many minorities have ascended to the middle class and beyond, reaching even the highest office in the land: The Presidency.

As I reflected on our nation's progress, I was most humbled by the challenge issued from Congressman John Lewis, the only surviving speaker from the 1963 event, who acknowledged that although the most brutal days of the Civil Rights era have ended, the struggle for a more "perfect America" continues. It is true that while there are no longer laws and mandates that disregard our humanity, there are reminders that -- even though the rules of engagement have changed -- the game is still the same. In other words, the full realization of "the dream" has been compromised by the continued existence of racism, exclusion, and extreme gaps in wealth that still leave too many disenfranchised. Today's inequities in access to quality jobs, education, health care, housing, and voting bear much resemblance to those of 50 years ago, and nowhere are these persistent inequities more evident than our nation's schools and colleges.

Education has always been regarded as the great equalizer and an essential component for unlocking the American Dream. But as we reflect on the unfinished work of the Civil Rights movement, we must recognize that too many low-income and minority children are denied access to a high-quality education, which should be a fundamental right to all Americans. Each year, over 1 million young adults drop out of high school, including 8 percent of African Americans, 12 percent of Native Americans, and 15 percent of Latinos. Among students who do make it to college, over 50 percent enrolled at two-year colleges and nearly 20 percent at four-year colleges must take remedial courses. Given that a college credential is more important than ever in obtaining consistent employment and avoiding financial hardship, we must work to close these academic gaps early.

Unfortunately, gaps by race and income persist in the postsecondary system as well. While today's students of color are far more likely to enter college than their Civil Rights era predecessors, they still enroll at lower rates than white students; and those who do enroll are concentrated in less selective, under-resourced institutions. In a recent report, the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found that African American and Latino students make up a meager 14 percent of the student body at America's 468 most selective institutions, while they represent more than a third (36 percent) of enrollments at open access schools, which are typically funded at significantly lower levels. Given these trends, the low attainment rates and widening opportunity gaps for these students should not be a surprise, as it provides evidence of a biased educational system.

Certainly, there are many in the postsecondary community who acknowledge these discrepancies and are advancing a number of reforms that seek to radically improve educational outcomes for all students. Many of these efforts -- Common Core academic standards, institutional financing and financial aid reform, and technology-enhanced learning strategies -- hold some promise in making our system work well for everyone. But the legacy of the Civil Rights movement teaches us that a series of interventions alone may not get us where we want to be; instead we must systematically seek to dismantle the discriminatory policies and practices embedded in our educational system, especially in areas such as academic and career tracking, school and institutional financing, and student and faculty recruitment to name a few.

Today's anniversary of the March on Washington should remind those of us in the educational community that our work continues. How can we expect to fully realize the dream of the Civil Rights movement until we have remedied the immense inequities that continue to plague our educational system -- the very inequities that prevent low-income young adults and people of color from realizing their own personal dreams? Until we have successfully dismantled the remaining vestiges of discrimination in our system -- policies and practices that limit opportunity and perpetuate privilege -- we will remain in pursuit of the dream: The guarantee of quality, affordable education for all students.

Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D., is the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington. D.C.-based nonpartisan, nonprofit organization celebrating 20 years as a Champion of Access and Success for all students--with a special focus on underserved populations--by providing timely research to inform public policy decisions.