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50 years in American education [Commentary]

Even as a child, I loved math.

As a 12-year-old in a Birmingham church in 1963, I found myself much more interested in the math problems in my lap than the speaker at the pulpit. Suddenly, though, he got my attention.

If the children march, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, people will see that they simply want a better education. It was as if he were reading my mind. I wanted to study in schools with the best facilities and resources, and I was tired of castoff books from the white schools. I wanted to be seen for my talents and potential, rather than my race.

And so I decided to join Dr. King by marching in the Children's Crusade and spent five terrifying days in jail.

At the time of the march, the chances of the average American holding a college degree weren't great — especially not for someone who looked like me. Only about 9 percent of adult Americans had a bachelor's degree; merely 4 percent of African- American adults held a degree. Less than half of the total population had graduated from high school, including just a quarter of blacks.

Fifty years later, some things haven't changed: Math still gives me goose bumps, and I still feel passionately about the promise of education. But, thankfully, many things have changed. Today over 30 percent of American adults hold a bachelor's degree, and nearly 90 percent have graduated from high school. But although those gains cut across all races and incomes, gaps persist. Even today, only 21 percent of blacks and 15 percent of Hispanics hold a bachelor's degree, and their high school graduation rates lag behind whites'.

Since people with a bachelor's degree tend to be more financially secure and healthier than those who do not, completing a college education benefits each graduate on a personal level. In addition, the future of our economy depends on ensuring that as many of us as possible complete college.

Today, as was the case 50 years ago, America is in a period of great change. Demand for college is growing, and the population is becoming increasingly diverse. The Maryland Higher Education Commission estimates that college enrollment will grow by almost 60,000 students — or 20 percent — by 2019, and that by 2021, minority students will account for about half of elementary and secondary school enrollments. Meanwhile, the demand for college graduates — especially graduates from the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields — is expected to grow.

In the same year of the Children's Crusade, 1963, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation to create UMBC. From the beginning, students of all races were invited to attend. It's the kind of place that those of us marching dreamed of, where the content of our minds matters more than the color of our skin. I had no way of knowing that the march constituted my first steps along a path that would lead to the president's office at UMBC.

As the university nears the 50th anniversary of welcoming its first students in 1966, we are reflecting on that dual promise of inclusivity and achievement. We send more African Americans on to earn Ph.D.s in the STEM disciplines than any other predominantly white institution in the nation, a feat that we've managed through the hard work of students, the mentoring of caring faculty and staff and the visionary philanthropy of Jane and Robert Meyerhoff. In fact, 40 percent of our students of all races across majors go immediately to graduate and professional schools, and the others enter the workforce — from artists and teachers to policy analysts and physicians.

Our state's elected officials have been very helpful in this journey, keeping tuition affordable without sacrificing quality and investing in public higher education. And the University System of Maryland has set high goals for the future, including a 55 percent college completion rate.

The top determinants of whether students, including minority students, graduate from college are whether they are academically prepared and whether they attend an institution that gives them the support they need and makes their success a priority. Colleges and universities from across the country are visiting our campus to understand our model of success — including building community, redesigning course work and having high expectations of all students.

The American educational system has fallen to 17th worldwide, and we're facing new competition from such countries as India and China, whose populations are eager to learn. Now more than ever we must make the investments in education that are so critical to our future.

The strides we've made in the past 50 years give me hope that we will move forward in the next.

Freeman Hrabowski is president of UMBC. His email is hrabowski@umbc.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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