The Fight for Educational Equality
There’s a sad reality about higher education in the U.S. today. Only 50 percent of high school graduates who start college earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, and one in three students won’t ever finish. There’s more to this statistic than at first meets the eye, however.
The vast majority of children born to families in our nation’s top 25 percent of earners get into four-year colleges, and more than 80 percent of those students graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years. It’s a different story for minorities and low-income families. America’s bottom 25 percent are completing four-year degrees at a rate below 10 percent, and it’s been this way for decades.
This chasm separating the rich from the poor partly stems from the fact that, while earning a college degree is nearly impossible for entire groups of people, more than 90 percent of new jobs require one. Even during the Great Recession, unemployment among college graduates never exceeded 5 percent, but it went as high as 11 percent for those with only a high school diploma and 16 percent among people who didn’t finish high school.
This kind of social and economic inequality has disastrous consequences and is one of the most critical issues facing the world today. It divides our nation by class and race as minorities are overrepresented among the poor and underrepresented among the middle and upper classes. The have-nots aren’t just strapped for cash either. They also experience worse health and worse quality of life and have a much harder time changing anything about their station.
A recent study from Georgetown University documents the systemic challenges that confront children from low-income families. The report concluded that wealth and social status are far more likely to determine a child’s scholastic and economic success than talent. As lead author Tony Carnevale wrote, “In America, it is better to be born rich than smart.”
In the face of this immense problem afflicting society, Georgia State has done more than any other institution to disrupt the status quo and change the face of higher education.
These shocking statistics simply don’t apply at Georgia State. Here, everyone succeeds at the same level because we have eliminated disparities in graduation rates based on race, ethnicity and income while raising our overall rates well above national norms. We did that by systematically restructuring our university to meet the needs of students from every background and by developing and leveraging new technologies and programs for academic advisement, career readiness and financial constraints that address some of the most common impediments to a degree.
No other university has accomplished what we have, as Bill Gates said himself after studying and visiting Georgia State.
We’re lighting the way for the nation and the world by demonstrating that universities can level the playing field so students from every segment of society can succeed. We do not have to live in a world divided by class and race, and we do not have to live in a world where wealth trumps intelligence.
Leaders around the world recognize that higher education must once again become an engine of social mobility, rather than the enabler of social inequality it has become. And thanks to Georgia State’s example, it can.
Mark P. Becker