By Marc H. Morial
“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” – Malcolm X
Our nation’s high schools are in a state of troubling crisis. Too many of our students are graduating ill-equipped for the academic rigors of college and, ultimately, the challenges and needs of today’s global, high-tech economy.
For many of our high school graduates, earning a college degree will be their first step on the path towards the “American Dream” of the job, the house and future economic security. And the data consistently points to this traditionally accepted conclusion: those who earn a college degree are more likely to attain higher-skilled and better paying jobs than their peers who only have a high school diploma. But a recent report points to a concerning reality, one where insufficient college readiness is cutting off large numbers of students from a critical conduit of future opportunity and success – and because of historic disparities in education between White students and Black and Latino students, students of color are impacted in greater numbers.
The ACT testing company, which administers a popular, nation-wide college admissions and placement test, published a report that showed that one in three students who took the ACT are not ready for college course work. In fact, just over six in 10 students met the test’s college-ready benchmarks in English, math, reading and science.
The data points to a disturbing performance gap when you compare the results of Black and Latino students to their White peers. For White high school students who took the ACT in 2014, 76 percent tested competent for college-level English courses and 52 percent tested competent for math. Only 34 percent of Black high school graduates tested competent for college-level English courses, and just 14 percent were ready to tackle college-level math. For Hispanic students, 47 percent were prepared for college-level English and 29 percent were ready for college-level math courses.
As we face a nationwide challenge to prepare all of our students for post-secondary academic success, it must be acknowledged that students of color are feeling the impact of the failure to prepare our students in far greater numbers. This failure not only hurts the individual student by curbing job prospects and higher earning potential, it weakens our nation and our standing as a strong competitor in a global marketplace that values the knowledge and skills that come with schooling and training beyond high school.
Understanding that time-tested correlation between educational opportunity and future economic empowerment, The National Urban League has developed Project Ready, a signature programming initiative that prepares African-American students and other urban youth for college, work and life. The project works with 8th to 12th grade students – along with their families – to increase college awareness; improve navigational and life skills; and raise confidence and self-awareness around decision making. The National Urban League wants more than increased enrollment numbers, we want students to go to college and thrive in college. That can only happen with preparation.
Project Ready students make academic progress, benefit from cultural enrichment opportunities and develop important skills, attitudes and aptitudes that will help them make the transition from high school and position them for post-secondary success. Students are immersed in an environment that offers academic, social and cultural supports and opportunities designed to develop college readiness. Progress is monitored in a variety of subjects, including STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses, to ensure students achieve a level of expertise that can take them beyond their high school classrooms.
Since 2006, more than 7,000 students have participated in their local community’s Project Ready program. In 2011, Urban League affiliates with Project Ready programs reported that at least 96 percent of participating students would be promoted to the next grade or were accepted into a two- or four-year college. In a 2012 survey of middle- and high-school students enrolled in programs in selected cities, 93 percent of students who responded said they had learned what it takes to succeed in college. Another 81 percent said they did activities to get ready for college and 75 percent said they attended college tours.
I rest assured that numbers like these, numbers that demonstrate an enthusiasm for learning and future success, are the kinds of numbers we want to see for all of our nation’s students. But before we can meet the challenge of cultivating a future American work force prepared to compete in our fast-paced, information-driven economy, we must ensure that our students are prepared to enter, prosper and grow in institutions of higher learning. Project Ready stands as ready proof that when we commit to putting our children first by directing our time and resources to their success, you will find many students ready to meet the challenge.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.