Our National Interest Requires Expanding College Access

As parents, we want our children to get a good education, because education opens doors to a better future. For the sake of our country, we need to put a greater emphasis on helping all of America's children get a good education, because that's the most effective way to build a better future for us all.

Unfortunately, the parents of many children born into poverty are unable to provide them with the equal educational opportunities every child deserves. As a consequence, many very smart students from low-income families face enormous obstacles to gain admission to college and to pay for a higher education.

For the past 16 years, a foundation created by extraordinary sports team owner and entrepreneur Jack Kent Cooke has given the gift of education to nearly 2,200 outstanding low-income students from eighth grade through graduate school.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, where I serve as executive director, has awarded more than $152 million in scholarship assistance to these Cooke Scholars, along with over $90 million in grants to organizations that serve high-achieving students from low-income families.

The Cooke Foundation was launched three years after Mr. Cooke's death in 1997 with a bequest from the sale of some of his assets, including his beloved Washington Redskins football team. With an endowment valued at about $650 million today, the foundation will continue operating by funding new scholarships with investment earnings on our endowment.

A new report
on the first 16 years of the Cooke Foundation, called "The State of the Foundation: Opening Doors to Equal Educational Opportunity for Outstanding Low-Income Students," is now on the foundation's website. It tells the not just the story of the foundation but of 15 young people whose lives were changed by Cooke Scholarships.

And just as importantly, the report documents the need for a greater effort by colleges and universities, charitable organizations, states and the federal government to enable students with big minds and small wallets to climb as high as they can on the education ladder.

Doing this will require billions of dollars, but it is an important national objective. The days when America's economic growth and prosperity were determined by manual labor performed by workers with little education are long gone. An educated workforce is vital in our knowledge economy.

Regrettably, America today is divided by an educational opportunity gap that has turned poverty into an inherited condition. The sad truth is that the best predictor of whether a young person will go to college is not intelligence, grades, ambition or hard work. It is family income. The more money your family has, the greater your chance of attending college.

A 2014 White House report titled "Increasing College Opportunity for Low-Income Students" gives this disturbing statistic: "While half of all people from high-income families have a bachelor's degree by age 25, just 1 in 10 people from low-income families do." In other words, if you are lucky enough to be born into a family with money, you are five times as likely to get a college degree as a child born into a poor family.

The situation is even worse at America's top colleges and universities. A Cooke Foundation study published earlier this year found that a mere 3 percent of students at the most selective colleges come from the 25 percent of families with the lowest incomes. In sharp contrast, 72 percent of students at the top schools come from the wealthiest 25 percent of the U.S. population.

College is a ticket out of poverty. The U.S. Education Department reported in 2015 that people with a four-year college degree typically earn 66 percent more than those with only a high school diploma. The department found that the average worker with a bachelor's degree will earn about $1 million more over the course of a lifetime than a worker without a postsecondary education.

If our nation is to live up to our self-proclaimed title of the Land of Opportunity and if we are to pay more than lip service to the notion that we are all created equal, we must eliminate or at least dramatically shrink the opportunity gap based on wealth at all colleges, including the most selective ones.

In these polarized and partisan times, we need a bipartisan consensus and commitment that we must fully utilize our greatest national resource - the brainpower of our young people - to solve the many problems that confront us today and that will confront our nation in the years ahead.

Such a national commitment is not simply a favor to bright low-income students seeking to build better lives. It is a favor to our nation, our children and generations not yet born.

Somewhere today, there are young girls and boys growing up in poverty with the potential to discover life-saving treatments for killer diseases, to build great companies employing thousands of Americans, to invent things that will improve our lives, to defend our country against terrorism and other foreign threats, to serve the nation ably in government, and to become great teachers.

We need to give these children a shot at a higher education that will make these potential achievements a reality. I am proud that the Cooke Foundation has done this for our Cooke Scholars. I hope that the success of these outstanding low-income students in school and in careers will illustrate how much more can be done with a major national effort to help millions more.

Former New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy is executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.