(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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."

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

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.