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Why education should be considered a civil right

I recently spoke at a seminar at Harvard on the theme of education as a civil right. Among other things, the seminar conveyed the urgency as well as the intractability of the problem of low college completion rates for certain groups of young people in our society.

I directed my remarks toward the low college enrollment and graduation rates for students from families in the lower half of the income distribution. While other panelists noted how increasing numbers of racial and ethnic minorities could influence college enrollments, I noted that the low-income problem affected all groups. Recently, a number of studies and other articles have appeared in the national press concerning the very large difference in degree completion among different income groups. This may signal that we as a society are finally beginning to focus on a long-standing problem that applies to all ethnic and racial groups in America.

I would like to briefly review some relevant information:

•At Harvard, I cited Census Bureau data showing that students from families in the top quarter of household income in the United States were seven times more likely than those in the lowest quarter to complete college by age 24 (71 percent vs. 10 percent). I could have added that only 15 percent of those from families in the next-to-the-lowest quarter of the income distribution completed college. Or that those students from the lowest half of the income distribution have barely seen any progress in decades. The stark fact is that if you come from a family where annual income is below $36,000, you have about an 8 percent chance of completing college.

•In a study sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan documented the large disparity in college completion rates among different income groups. They also note that virtually all of the gains in college completion in recent decades have been among those from upper-income groups, primarily women from households making upward of $100,000 per year.

•Sean Reardon of Stanford University, writing last month in The New York Times, also documents the large differences in cognitive achievement between young people from different income levels at all levels of the education system. He likewise notes that the achievement gap has been growing between upper- and lower-income students on a variety of pre-college achievement measures. He points out that the gap has grown not because the achievement levels of lower-income students has dropped but rather because the achievement levels of upper-income students have grown substantially.

•Nina Marks and Rachel Mazyck of Collegiate Directions in Bethesda report that only 3 percent of students in the top 146 colleges in the country are from families in the lowest-income group. On the other hand, 74 percent of their students are from families in the top quartile of income. At the same time, they offer hope that if low-income students prepare early, they can succeed, citing their organization's high rate of success with providing support to students from 11th grade through college completion.

The last several decades have seen significant increases in educational expenditures at all levels of the educational system. During this period, there have also been a variety of educational reform movements designed to raise the achievement levels of students across the board. It appears that the best that can be said of these efforts is that students in the upper middle class have been in the best position to benefit from educational improvements, and the rapid increases in their educational outcomes reflect this. Unfortunately, leaving half of the talent in the country behind is not the best way to reinvigorate our economy or to avert the many personal and social problems that result from this lack of upward mobility.

As the president of an urban institution with an access-oriented admissions philosophy, I can attest to the necessity of providing many students with personal attention on a continuing basis in order to help them be successful. I also can attest to the importance of thinking about college early and preparing for it. There is a role for all levels of education if we take this problem seriously and are to deal with it effectively. However, colleges cannot wait for the time when all students arrive at our doors prepared well enough for college. That is not likely to happen any time in the near future, regardless of the programs we develop and the money we spend. Supporting low-income students in college is, on average, a relatively expensive proposition in the short term. However, over the longer term, moving more students into the middle class helps them and their children, helps to improve the economy, and helps us to avoid many of the long-term social costs associated with low-income status.

In light of all this, we must embrace the notion that receiving a quality education at the elementary and secondary level is a civil and moral right. Failure to offer these opportunities to poor children will result in a perpetual state of poverty for them and increased costs to colleges and universities that seek to offer them the support they need to succeed once they show up on our campuses.

David Wilson is the president of Morgan State University. His email is david.wilson@morgan.edu.

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