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College Affordability and Preparedness

What Racial Equity Would Really Look Like in Higher Education

Ask 10 people what racial equity in education means and you may get 11 different answers. If we want real progress, we need to agree on what equity actually looks like –and how to achieve it.

Simply put, equity means ensuring access to quality education for people of all races and ethnicities. This is an urgent goal that we aren’t close to reaching.

At Lumina Foundation, we work to close gaps for people of color who can’t access or complete education beyond high school. More broadly, our Equity Imperative addresses issues of racial justice and fairness as we redesign the higher education system to be more affordable, accessible, accountable and equitable. In other words, we want all Americans to have a shot at success.

A recent reportby the American Council on Education shows some progress. In 2016, the college enrollment rate for African American young adults reached 36 percent, a nine-point increase from 20 years earlier. The rate for Latinxs increased by 18 points to 38 percent.

We welcome this progress, but it’s not enough. And the picture of higher degree attainment is not as bright. As Lumina’s new A Stronger Nationreport shows, 47 percent of whites have at least an associate degree, compared with 31 percent of African Americans, 25 percent of American Indians, and only 24 percent of Latinxs. Those are shocking gaps for a nation trying to compete in a tech-driven, global economy.Black and brown students also are more likely to borrow to pay for their postsecondary education and training, to borrow greater amounts, and to be less likely to finish school or repay their student loans. Earlier this year, four U.S. senators sent a letter to key stakeholders asking for ways to address the inordinately adverse effects of loan debt on students of color.

There are no easy answers, but we do know this: equity and excellence must be the twin forces that drive our transformed postsecondary system.

That’s why Lumina awarded $1.6 million in grants to 19 colleges and universities from our Fund for Racial Justice and Equity. The fund was created in the wake of last year’s shameful acts of racially motivated violence in Charlottesvilleon the campus of the University of Virginia.

These 19 institutions are addressing racial disparities in bold ways at a systemic level. They know that achieving equitable results is about more than promoting diversity — it’s about creating a climate where all students feel welcome and are inspired to do their best work.

It’s also about giving students a strong voice in removing barriers and shaping changes to their college experience that could ultimately help eliminate unfair and unequal outcomes.

Across our education system, we’ll need to acknowledge systemic disparities while urgently working to close attainment gaps. We will continue to embed equity in all of our efforts, seek clear, flexible, and transparent pathways to postsecondary credentials, and connect with like-minded businesses, organizations, and other partners to drive meaningful change.

JPMorgan Chase just announced a $1 million donation to the Indianapolis Public Schools in our headquarters city, to increase work-based learning and create a pipeline to jobs. Likewise, companies such as Walmart, Disney, Discover and Starbucks are investing in employees who want to finish college or sharpen their skills. We need many more partners like this.

Racial inequality has a grim legacy in our country that we can’t shy away from as we work to increase access, success, and attainment for all who want to learn. We must confront it and dismantle it.

In doing so, we will help those who have been left behind and honor the true definition of equity.

Danette Howard, Ph.D., Senior VP and Chief Strategy Officer, Lumina Foundation, [email protected]

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