Degrees of Separation: A College Education for All

The Declaration of Independence says: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." In a global society and knowledge economy, does a college education or lack thereof create degrees of separation for the haves and have-nots?

The United States has long been viewed as a land of opportunity, particularly in access to higher education. Without higher education, there would be no pipeline of talent and knowledge to grow the economies of communities and our nation. There would be no teachers, nurses, doctors, veterinarians, business leaders, engineers -- the list goes on. In addition, rapidly changing technologies requiring profound knowledge and expertise and increasing globalization creates a flattening of the world so brilliantly described by Thomas Friedman in his book The World Is Flat. Education fueled our nation's growth in the last millennium. Today, the future success of our global society depends upon those with a college degree who can navigate and innovate throughout the 21st century.

Kofi Annan, seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, once said, "Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family." Those with a college degree continue to benefit from substantially higher lifetime earnings than those without a degree. But perhaps the most significant transformation happens in those from low-income families. A college degree represents a path out of poverty and into the middle class, serving to close a critical societal gap of separation that affords them a brighter future, filled with hope and possibilities. The best and brightest of our youth -- from all walks of life -- can change the world in meaningful ways, and are all equally deserving of a college education.

However, the degrees of separation are expanding. Herein is the dilemma. A college degree can close the gap between the haves and the have-nots, but at present the success rate of low-income college students is dismal. Paul Tough writes in his New York Times article, "Who Gets to Graduate?" that students who come from families in the top-income quartile have a two in three chance of graduating with a four-year degree, while those in the bottom quartile have only a 1 in 6 chance of making it to graduation. If the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to broaden in education, then it will be perpetuated in future earning potential; the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer. The degrees of separation will grow.

The problem is not access to college or even affordability. A recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) report card is sobering: less than 40 percent of 12th graders are ready for college, just 39 percent have the math skills needed for entry-level college course work, and only 38 have the necessary reading skills. A report released in January 2014, "Early Reading Proficiency in the United States," by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found:

The gap in reading proficiency between lower- and higher-income fourth graders has grown by 20 percent in the past decade... although improvements have been made in the last 10 years, 66 percent of all fourth graders are not proficient in reading ... By the time children are eight years old -- especially those living in low-income families -- many have not met the developmental milestones they need for future success.

The report concluded that by 2020 "the United States is expected to face a shortage of 1.5 million workers with college degrees and a surplus of six million unemployed people without a high school diploma."

Because a higher percentage of high school graduates from low-income families -- and even students in earlier grade levels -- are not being sufficiently educated in the most basic learning, it should come as no surprise that the majority of college students who need to take remedial-level courses to be on par with their collegiate peers are disproportionately minority and low-income. If we are guaranteed certain rights by the founding fathers of this great nation, then why are the degrees of separation getting wider?

American education must be a promise of opportunity and access for all. The haves and the have-nots cannot be separated by degrees of inequality -- be these college or high school degrees. Nor can inequity occur in pre-high-school grade levels. Higher education is both a privilege and a public good, but it requires a unified and collaborative effort throughout all educational systems to better prepare students for success. When students who attend college are not prepared for the rigors of the academic curriculum, they will fail. When they do not have the tools to develop independent thinking, they will fail. When they develop from a foundation of believing they are not good enough, they will fail. This is not a failure of higher education; it is a failure of our entire educational system -- and it is educational malpractice.

I commend University of Texas (U.T.) Professor David Laude, featured in Tough's New York Times article, who developed the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan to address the needs of those he described as "outsiders from the beginning" -- U.T. students from predominantly low-income families. This is the type of intervention needed to ensure that talented young men and women who were not previously oriented to succeed will earn their college degrees.

Our nation promises happiness and inalienable rights for everyone. Entrepreneurial educators like Professor Laude are sorely needed in every classroom across America. We must narrow the gap that grants a promising future for some, and not for others. If we create an enlightened and educated future for just one person, their life will be transformed, and society is changed for the better. Let us work collectively to narrow the degrees of separation for everyone who pursues a college education.