By Frank Swanzy Essien, Jr.,Ph.D., and Kelley Ditzel,Ph.D.

There are 600,000 fewer Black learners in college today than a decade ago, resulting in devastating lost opportunities. More than half of that decrease hit community colleges, once a popular choice for Black students pursuing better jobs and wages.

In stark terms, here’s what those losses mean

  • Black high school graduates earned 23 percent lower pay than those with associate degrees.
  • Failing these Black learners—rather than enrolling, retaining, and graduating them with an associate degree or other credentials—costs the nation at least $2.9 billion in direct wages lost annually.
  • Or, put it this way: If every working Black adult with a high school diploma earned as much as the average Black college graduate, their extra earnings would total $222 billion. That’s more than the economies of 19 states and the District of Columbia combined.

Without education—one of the surest paths to better lives and economic prosperity—people and families suffer, and skilled workers needed to spur our nation’s economy are in short supply.

Today, leaders are sounding the alarm. A bipartisan, nationwide network of 26 CEOs, college executives, state and federal officials, and business and philanthropic leaders issued a report and a call to action to reverse these declines and invest in Black learners’ success. They realize that starting long before the pandemic, Black learners faced sky-high barriers to college degrees, resulting in equity gaps.

So these leaders committed to level up efforts for Black learners by getting real with these urgent steps

  1. Real Transparency and True Affordability: We must focus not only on increasing need-based aid but address bottom-line costs and affordability. Texas’ Paul Quinn College is a good example of reimagining campus facilities and programs to reduce tuition, cut student debt, and increase graduation rates.
  2. Ensured Success through Shared Ownership: At each level—federal, state, system, and schools—we must create mechanisms to support Black learners and be accountable for their success.
  3. Academic and Social Supports that Create a Sense of Belonging: We must help Black learners stay on paths to high-wage/high-demand jobs while addressing their mental health and childcare needs, as well as housing, transportation, technology, and food needs—all in an environment of respect.
  4. Learner-Centered Teaching Practices for Black Learners: We must ensure that teaching practices focus on students’ lived experiences, perspectives, strengths, and needs as the base for learning.

A new foundation for learning

A recent Lumina Foundation-Gallup analysis found that discrimination often derails Black learners’ dreams of achieving success through degrees and credentials. The study found that 21 percent of Black postsecondary students say they “frequently” or “occasionally” feel discriminated against at college—higher than the 15 percent reported by their peers. It’s our moral and economic imperative to address this.

We can improve lives with a signed commitment to action and change by this national panel of leaders, supported by Lumina and others. This is the cornerstone of a new, equitable foundation to meet the needs of all learners. As we help students learn, earn, and contribute their talents, we’ll build a brighter future for us all.

Related news:
West Virginia’s Black College Student Population on Decline | Public News Service | May 8, 2023

[Editor’s Note: Frank Swanzy Essien, Jr., Ph.D., is Strategy Officer for Research at Lumina Foundation, an independent foundation that helps all Americans learn beyond high school. He is partnering with Kelley Ditzel, Ph.D., a thought leader, educator, and researcher with HCM Strategists, a consulting firm that works to make education more accessible and equitable. Engage with us at @HCMStrat and @LuminaFound. Read an opinion piece by Keith Curry, Ed.D., president and CEO of Compton College.]

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