Education Is the 21st-Century Liberator

Black Leaders on Education: UNCF's chief notes today's freedom struggle, 150 years after slavery.

(Special to The Root) — Continuing their historical practice of working together to address issues of concern to the African-American community, the NAACP, National Urban League, United Negro College Fund and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund are working cooperatively to improve educational opportunities for all students. This week we will run op-eds by the leaders of each organization that address a crucial aspect of what it will take to prepare our young people to succeed in life. Today: The president of UNCF addresses college readiness and the gap in four-year-college graduation rates. See previous essays in the series here.

Jan. 1 marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. But has a century and a half of progress lived up to the freedom for all races that the proclamation and constitutional amendments that followed seemed to augur?

Two years after the proclamation, as chronicled by the current film that bears his name, President Abraham Lincoln would succeed in passing through Congress the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that formally and finally abolished slavery throughout the nation.

Today, especially in the area of education, which has been my life’s work, Lincoln’s proclamation and the landmark victories during and after the Civil War can produce a feeling of inevitability, a sense of our history as the narrative of unalloyed triumph in the hard-fought struggle on what Frederick Douglass so eloquently labeled “the pathway from slavery to freedom.” That sense of victory is reinforced this Jan. 21 — the national holiday of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth, and with rich and powerful resonance the date of the second inaugural of our first black president.

Yet layered beneath the substantial accomplishment of re-electing Barack Obama — which serves as a symbol of so many other goals fought for and gained over the last century and a half — there are other deeply disturbing realities of black life in America that challenge us not to be complacent, not to be satisfied with what we have achieved.

Nearly half of all black children who begin kindergarten do not graduate from high school. And only 5 percent of black high school students who took the ACT test for high school achievement and college admissions in 2011 met its college-readiness benchmarks. That means that a sizable proportion of black students who go on to college are not fully prepared. Many have to take at least one remedial course, for which they pay college tuition but receive no college credit.

Coupled with the financial challenges that black students face paying tuition, it should be little surprise that only 40 percent of all black students who start college finish within six years. Today only 20 percent of adult African Americans have a college degree — compared with 34 percent of whites and 51 percent of Asian Americans.

And what is the result of our education-attainment gap?

Our rate of unemployment is almost double that for whites. Our rate of home ownership is 30 percentage points lower than that of whites and lower than that of any other racial group. In addition, our annual median income (pdf) is $24,000 less than that of whites. According to census data, the percentage of our families who earn less than $10,000 is the highest of any major American ethnic or racial group, and the percentage of our families who earn more than $250,000 per year is the lowest.

But our incarceration rates are significantly higher, and particularly for black males, the average life expectancy (pdf) is markedly lower than that of our white peers.