Education Is the 21st-Century Liberator

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

This is not what any of us wants for our next generation. It is certainly not the future that parents want for their children. An overwhelming percentage of low-income African-American parents whom we surveyed told us that they aspired to have their children graduate from college. These parents look to us — African-American community leaders and leadership organizations — to help them turn aspiration into reality.

As an educator and activist for nearly half a century, I have personally witnessed the transformation that a college education and college degree make in the lives of those who can earn them. And today I lead an organization, the United Negro College Fund, that for almost seven decades has had one laser-focused purpose: to increase black college attainment by supporting HBCUs and black college students everywhere with scholarships so that many, not just a fraction, can go to and through college.

And, painfully, I know that there is a crisis of educational underachievement in the black community today. It has many causes but one devastating effect: It slams shut the door to opportunity in the faces of too many black Americans, leaving them marginalized, outside the economic mainstream and segregated from the rich and enriched lives that education helps ensure.

This does not have to be the fate of our children and grandchildren.

It is time — no, it is well past time — for black Americans to acknowledge the education crisis in our community. We must make education the great cause of our day. And we must do our part to ensure that every black child who enters preschool in America will graduate from high school college-ready, that many more will enroll in college than do today and that they will persist in college until they finish and earn a degree.

That has got to be the work of this still-new century. If it is, and if we succeed, we can indeed feel a sense of progress and potential triumph in the sweep of our history over the last century and a half, because it is educational opportunity and achievement that will transform dreams into reality.

We can build better futures for our children by investing in their educations today. That is the work of UNCF, and it has to become the work that all of us support.

If educational success, attaining a college degree, becomes the norm and not the exception, then we can celebrate the 150 years since Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and affirm that we are indeed on “the pathway from slavery to freedom.”

Michael Lomax is president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund. He is a contributing editor for The Root.

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