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Separate and Unequal Education Is Hurting America | Commentary

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court stepped up its scrutiny of race in college access in Fisher v. University of Texas. It once again ignited a national conversation on affirmative action and whether race-conscious quotas have fulfilled their purpose. But are we having the right conversation?

If we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that new approaches are needed to give underserved students greater access to education beyond high school. As a nation, we need policymakers, institution leaders, employers and others with courage to help chart the best path forward.

The difficult truth facing our country — affirmative action or not — is that American colleges and universities are still separate and unequal. The inequity in our postsecondary system has grown far too big for Band-Aid policies alone, and the stratification of our higher-education institutions, especially with regard to race, requires our attention.

A new study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce finds that minority access to postsecondary education over the past 15 years is a good news/bad news story. The good news is that postsecondary access has increased, especially for African-Americans and Hispanics. The bad news is that the pace of attainment isn’t nearly good enough, and both groups are losing ground.

From 1995 to 2009, more than 80 percent of new students enrolled in the 468 most selective colleges in America were white. Over that same time span, more than 70 percent of new African-American and Hispanic students were enrolled in some 3,250 open-access, two- and four-year colleges. Of course, admissions selectivity doesn’t guarantee high quality, and open admissions policies don’t necessarily eliminate rigor. Still, by and large, today’s students are traveling on separate postsecondary pathways leading to unequal opportunities and outcomes.

Each year, there are more than 100,000 high-scoring African-American and Latino students from the top half of the nation’s high schools who either don’t attend college or don’t graduate. About 60,000 of these students come from families in the bottom half of the income distribution. African-American and Latino students are also more likely to drop out of college.

This matters because more than three-fourths of the nation’s professional degree holders are white. Statistics show that workers with advanced degrees earn up to $2 million per student over the course of a lifetime. They contribute more in taxes, are more involved civically and socially, and consume fewer public resources than college dropouts.

To ensure that these students get the support and resources they need for degree attainment, we can’t keep advocating for more representation in elite, selective schools — there simply aren’t enough seats in the top colleges for all the students who can do the work. That’s why we need to bring the high-quality education delivered by the elite colleges to all of our college students, wherever they are enrolled.

We believe that all of higher education must be reformed to design a truly student-centered, learning-based system — one that ensures access to all types of students, gives those students the preparation and ongoing support they need to succeed, and enables them to earn credentials that demonstrate real and relevant learning.

That’s what we need, but the jury is out on whether America has the political and public will to make the changes that are required. For decades, we’ve been doing things the same way, and that approach has served us well on many fronts. Now the time has come for us to start the process of shifting our focus away from where students go to college, so that we can start placing more value on what students actually know when they graduate.

For this shift to happen, we need a better approach to measuring what students know. That means creating a national system of credential and credits that’s based on learning and competencies rather than seat time and where students earned their degrees. This new system must offer clear and transparent pathways to students, support high-quality learning and prepare them to respond to workforce needs and trends.

In a country that prides itself on equality of opportunity, we must reject separate and unequal postsecondary pathways. Not only is our country’s economy ill-served by a system that fails to tap all of our talent, but so is our collective conscience. We’re all diminished by an education system that rations postsecondary opportunity based on skin color, income or status.

Jamie P. Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation for Education. Anthony P. Carnevale is director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

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