We can’t achieve racial equity in higher education without an avid defense of civil rights. Within the past year, Lumina Foundation has focused on supporting civil rights organizations to increase their capacity to advocate for federal policies that can better serve today’s students.

Among many Americans, the civil rights struggle evokes images of the 1960s—citizens marching, protesting, and pushing for greater equality and democracy. Many victories were gained on college campuses, which were battlegrounds for racial inclusion, justice, equality, and affordability. It has been more than half a century since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Higher Education Act of 1965 were passed. While progress has been made to dismantle segregation laws and integrate the nation’s public institutions, challenges continue to plague campuses and divide communities.

Today, debates about civil rights are front and center in the news media, among state and federal policymakers, and in our national discourse. As a country, we dispute race-conscious admissions and First Amendment rights, including the right to free speech. We confront explicit threats to Black, Latino, and Native American communities and endure racist commentary from national political leaders. And we face rollbacks by the U.S. Department of Education of guidance to college campuses about sexual assault and transgender students’ rights.

At Lumina Foundation we have been leading the effort for racial equity in education after high school. Through this framework, the foundation embeds equity-mindedness in all its efforts to seek clear and flexible pathways to learning for everyone who wants to pursue a college degree or other credential of value after high school. We seek to join like-minded organizations and partners to help those who have been left out or left behind.

The foundation is making slow but steady progress. Here are a few ways that our civil rights partners are driving change in federal policy:

Advancing a Civil Rights Vision for Higher Education

In July, nearly 50 civil rights and education organizations signed onto a list of 10 principles for inclusion in the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and its sister organization, The Leadership Conference Education Fund, have been stalwarts in the civil rights community for decades because of their commitment to the idea that civil rights must be secured through a coalition of organizations and actors. In 2018, these organizations brought together other civil rights and higher education partners “to identify fundamental elements of a higher education system that advances equity and protects students’ civil rights.” This coalition produced The Civil Rights Principles for Higher Education, which offers a vision for how systems of U.S. higher education can be transformed to preserve, protect, and extend civil rights. This 10-chapter volume addresses issues of inequity such as protecting student borrowers and ensuring safe and inclusive campus climates that promote learning. It also advocates improving information systems so researchers and policymakers have data that illuminate inequities that hamper students of color and students who attend more than one college or university to finish degrees.

“Unidos is a call to action.”

Umbrella terms such as “people of color” can reflect the spirit of coalition-building and interracial solidarity. When overused, the term can distract from the unique experiences of Black, Latino, and Native peoples, potentially promoting colorblindness and universality. If we are to make headway on realizing American idealism for everyone, we must confront the vestiges of racism, xenophobia, and nativism that lie at the root of today’s economic, housing, and educational inequities.

For example, Latinos are the largest of the younger and faster-growing U.S. demographic groups. As a result of population growth, Latino students are enrolling in post-high school programs in record numbers; there was a more than threefold increase from 1990 to 2016. Despite such gains, barriers to earning degrees and other credentials have resulted in stagnant outcomes as the Latino community faces political and social hostility.

This is why we proudly partnered with UnidosUS, an organization formerly known as the National Council of La Raza. As a trusted, nonpartisan voice that works to better the lives of those in Latino communities, UnidosUS has expanded its post-high school advocacy through recent data briefs on Latinos in Higher Education.

The country desperately needs a national policy and advocacy agenda for learning after high school that will better serve Latino students. And UnidosUS is an organization that will boldly defend Latino communities as they pursue an education that leads to good jobs and more opportunities to learn.

No Policies Without Students

Too often, student voices are absent from national policy discussions. While many organizations gather student stories to support their agendas, student leaders themselves are well-positioned to serve as powerful, authentic messengers, especially if given the right support, training, and professional connections to sustain advocacy. Students are more engaged than ever in national and federal policy dialogues, and the time is right to help channel their energy into educating business, educational, political, and other leaders about effective nonpartisan policy options.

Today’s students are connecting what’s happening to them, to their families, and to their communities with their educational experiences. Decades of research on campus climate shows that if students do not feel safe and supported on campus, they are less likely to learn and to complete their programs of study.

Last year, the National Campus Leadership Council worked with more than a dozen statewide associations of students and student governments on multiple campuses to develop shared federal policy objectives. The result was the Student Policy Alliance. Representing more than 6 million students at over 400 colleges and universities, the Alliance wrote to Congress, calling for student-centered, fair, and just policy design and implementation. This fall, students across the country will develop their own advocacy campaigns to advance the student policy platform and will elevate the voices of first-generation, immigrant, and adult students, as well as students of color.

This is the beginning. To quote Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award winner and author of “How To Be an Antiracist,” policies explicitly designed to fight racism can yield racial equity—and all of us must play an active role in re-envisioning what a truly just and fair America looks like. Students and other advocates of achieving racial equity in higher education have been—and continue to be—active agents of change.

Our nation’s civil rights struggles are far from over, and any gains must be defended. An attack on the civil rights of anyone individual represents an erosion of our rights and liberties. With help from our partners, we won’t let that happen.

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